Reviewed by Thomas Coyne (Morocco 1981–82)
SAUDI ARABIA IS A HARD PLACE TO WRITE ABOUT. The western mind gets easily distracted by such cultural flash points as hijabs and theocracies. The Saudi sensibility seems clannish; not so interested in advertising its lifestyle to the rest of the world. So surprise, Learn Thai With Me, the second novel from RJ Huddy, (a nom de plume of a Moroccan RPCV) is a rare example evoking the Saudi Arabia of the 1980’s.
Of course, this is really a book about Americans — Degenerates Abroad perhaps — and not so much about Saudis or Thais. There are some other caveats. For one thing, Learn Thai With Me will not teach you much — if any — Thai. In fact, we are given not a single peep into the eponymous book of the title. For another, at some point, reader, you will have to take a willing-suspension-of-disbelief pill to get through it. Learn Thai With Me is like a phoropter — that gadget the optometrist uses to learn what eyeglass lenses you like. “Click . . . click . . . Now which one is more in focus?” In this case, Huddy takes you to Jeddah, Bangkok, an Appalachian hamlet, and Afghanistan to check out his vision.
The central story follows this narrative arc: Boy Meets Girl. Boy Loses Girl. Boy Meets Boy. Boy Meets Other Girl… No, really Learn Thai With Me contrasts Saudi society with that of Bangkok’s red-light districts. No . . . really . . . Learn Thai With Me juxtaposes western and eastern philosophies . . .
“Click” — our hero Jack meets Nigel in the Jeddah airport Customs Lounge. Taciturn, isolated, Jack is in Saudi to get his head straight. Nigel is there to play — Saudi being marginally more gay tolerant than America of the 1980’s. Jack and Nigel have baggage of the sort that doesn’t get inspected by Customs officials. Jack is a crooked man, in a downward spiral of despair over a thwarted romance; his relationship with his mother and the faith of his father has also ruptured. Nigel is the wealthy heir to a Chicago pizza-empire, but his sensibilities are too thin-crusted, too sex-addicted. He is an insomniac, but too tired to quit while he’s ahead.
The two are assigned as villa-mates at a Saudi army school compound and begin lucrative-but-dreary contracts as language instructors. Their students study English as the prerequisite to learning modern warfare. At first an odd couple, Jack and Nigel start to accommodate each other’s frailties. They explore, amazed and amused, a Saudi cultural landscape composed of petro-dollars, religious police, censored comic strips, prayer rugs with built-in compasses pointing to Mecca. They work together on a book called Learn Thai With Me.
“Click” — Nigel is deported and Jack goes on a red-light holiday to Thailand. He finds comfort with Bar Girl Number 27, Tia, and learns from her that his heart can be repaired. Tia espouses a philosophy of acceptance — of unbearable but undeniable linkages between good and evil, health and sickness, hope and heartache. Life is this duality; so abnegation must be the true goal.
“Click” — Jack refocuses on Appalachia. He goes home to Cob Creek, finds the lyrical woods and streams of his youth, finds a best friend, finds a mother who still loves him; finds — again — all the reasons he had run away.
“Click” — the penultimate stop is Afghanistan where Jack’s life comes full circle and finally comes into focus. Jack is who he is. He does what he does.
Author Huddy, a former PCV and long-time ex-pat, captures the texture and tenor of work-in-Saudi/play-in-Bangkok quite realistically. In the Saudi chapters, he clues the reader in to the unique Saudi caste system for its guest-workers: Filipinos = laborers, South Asians = domestics, British = accountants, Americans = instructors. In the Thai chapters, Learn Thai With Me doesn’t conceal the grubbiness of the sex trade, but also doesn’t diminish the giddy, burlesque-and-booze atmosphere of those times. [N.B. a contemporary echo of Bangkok-80s-nightlife can be found simply by googling “Amy G” & “kazoo.”] Learn Thai With Me narrates the sweetness that could be found there — Huddy calls it “charming the loneliness off.”
If anything, Huddy understates what is really a startling dichotomy between Saudi attitudes towards women and sex, and Bangkok’s opposite approach. Saudi culture puts women on a metaphoric pedestal and then surrounds, shrouds them with such restrictions on free expression as are found in few other places in the world. Meanwhile, in the bars and massage parlors of Bangkok, women and sex are commercialized to extremes.
For scenery — for the way people talked and behaved in Saudi or on Patpong St. in the ’80’s — Learn Thai With Me is a good primer. Huddy’s narrative never plays to stereotype. His Saudi characters are not sympathetic, but they are never buffoons. His Thai and Kentucky characters likewise escape any number of possible, dreadful representations. Unfortunately, the high road is a narrow one. His supporting cast of ethnics serve merely to voice the plot. We never get enough of their words to really understand their point of view in the circumstances. It’s only when Huddy returns his story to Kentucky that the rhythms and pitch of dialog ring true to the ear.
I will report here that Jack strikes me as either self-deluded or a misogynist. Given opportunities to man up, he bails. About this Huddy says: “Jack is principled.” I say — phooey. A secondary plot makes multiple cameo appearances in the narrative, only to fade away. Likewise, a clever ruse to expose a secret leaves the secret still hidden. Huddy uses his characters as if directing a stage play on a budget — too few actors/too many roles. This produces only a deflating sensation — it’s a small world after all. A final criticism is Huddy’s use of a narrative feint — a trick — to make the reader think much more highly of a central relationship in the book than it actually merits — quite like hearing the TV/film music swell when two lovers begin their romantic talk, instead of hearing the love talk itself.
Full disclosure: RJ Huddy and I were stagiaires together in the Maghreb. I had well and truly lost touch with him these past three decades. Learn Thai With Me was the opportunity to get reacquainted with both the old and new RJ. He is now two books and more into the writing life. Huddy’s debut novel Verse of the Sword (reviewed elsewhere on this website) is a true delight, ambitious and articulate. Read it! Go on and read Learn Thai With Me too. Then join me in hoping for some future reviewer’s tweet: “Legions of RJ Huddy fans welcome his third book — in which he returns to the assured authorial voice of VOTS and ties up threads left loose in LTWM – to create a new classic.”
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Thomas Coyne finished his Peace Corps tour as a TEFL teacher in Morocco, then spent 18 months in Saudi teaching English to naval cadets. Today he commutes daily to a large office building in the Loop in downtown Chicago wherein he works as a grants manager. In his (scant) spare time, he studies the mysteries of saxophony. His travels, expressed as a Venn diagram, would overlap nearly 80 percent of the locations and times narrated in LTWM.