Thailand remains under-represented in English-language fiction, contemporary or otherwise; little has been translated and only a little more has been published by authors who can claim roots in the country. Mai Nardone is a Thai-American writer who, while represented in such mainstream publications as Granta, McSweeney’s and Ploughshares, was raised and lives in Bangkok: any debut would be welcomed; it helps that his is very good.
Welcome Me to the Kingdom is an imaginative set of interlocking short stories set in Bangkok, spanning several decades, at least two generations, and various sets of protagonists. The stories could each stand alone, but in this cleverly constructed collection, Nardone has the characters from one story appear in others, often years later and in a very different guise. The whole, while perhaps not quite a novel, is nevertheless coherent in both narrative and structure, with each story’s brief narrative arc opening onto a new one with the turn of the page.
The book opens with Pea and Nam, young man and woman, or perhaps boy and girl, from Isaan in Thailand’s impoverished Northeast, trying to find a future, or more prosaically just make a go of things on arrival in Bangkok. “We came with the drought,” starts the Prologue.
From the window of the train, the rich brown of the Chao Phraya River marked the turn from the northeast into the central plains. We came for Bangkok on the delta. The thin tributaries that laced the provinces found full current at the capital. And in the city, we’d heard, the wealth was wide and deep.
Pea, at least, expects a future together. He strives to find work—he gives himself thirty days—to protect Nam from the vicissitudes of life in the big city. Pea is ultimately unsuccessful, and Nam finds her own way: in the second story, she is enveloped by newly-arrived American Rick in a bar.
This transition sets the tone for the collection. Later stories feature Nam and Rick, now married, with a daughter Lara, who never adapts to her half-Thai, half-American reality. Ping and Pinky are two young women who survive the deaths of fathers who are somewhat less than that; Pinky’s is Vitat, an Elvis impersonator; she strikes out on her own after his early death. Tintin and Benz and a pair of orphans—strayboys—who start off living next to a klong, fall in with a corrupt policeman, and do their best to stick together through thick and thin.
The stories themselves range widely, from coming of age stories to tales centered on sex—adjacent to if not quite in the sex trade—gambling, hustling and vignettes on abortion, jazz, skin lightening, expat disillusionment and spiritual solutions to life’s problems. Some stories are cynical, some fatalistic and some—such as one of a boy trying to make a go of a food cart in his father’s absence—poignant to the point of despair. Nardone seems equally at ease—if that’s the right word, for his characters are rarely at ease—with both male and female points of view, first, second or third person, and can see the world through a child’s eyes as well as an adult’s. The writing is confident and accomplished, the characters defined and relatable.
But the stories are almost entirely sad. Insofar as Nardone’s Bangkok offers hope, it is a mirage and soon dashed. His is not the Thailand of tourist promotions (“‘Take Home a Thousand Smiles.’ This, too, we read as a promise,” concludes the Prologue); it does however parallel the Bangkok of much so-called expat fiction. Nardone’s writing is in a very different class, but women still have few options to get along other than sex. Upward mobility is next to impossible, except via a Faustian bargain of one kind or another, and even then prone to failure. Cops are corrupt; fraud is normal; violence endemic. Nardone’s characters, a good number of them anyway, maintain a degree of both humanity and dignity, but it’s a struggle against the odds; the rewards are few and fleeting.
The book concludes with a pair of stories that, with 40 years between them, bookend the collection: the first a prologue to the story of Pea and Nam, and the second, a sort of denouement to the story of the two orphans. “Save yourselves,” it ends.