Never Push an Elephant
by William V. Timmons (Niger 1965–67)
Reviewed by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64; PC/DC Staff 1964–67)
I WISH William V. Timmons were a more adroit writer, for he plainly knows his way around Southeast Asia. His greatest gifts apparently are non-literary, however. For their achievements as child welfare workers, Timmons and his wife Rachel were decorated by the King of Thailand. In Bangkok, some of the worst suck-ups in the indolent Thai upper classes receive these honors, but I am guessing that farangs recognized by the old monarch have actually done something useful.
The deficiencies of this “thriller” about some CIA and U.S. missionary old boys rescuing a young American woman from a Burmese opium magnate are evident right away, and I almost threw in the towel after about 50 pages. The talky opening chapters are set in hectic, sedate, grim, funny, gloriously stinky, formal, loosy-goosy Bangkok, but in this book there’s not much sense of that amazing place. A fancy hotel called the Regent has “uniformed doormen.” If this is really the Oriental, it could have been pointed out that the lobby staff there are gotten up like actors in a road-show version of The King and I. A whorehouse has “an extravagantly decorated interior.” Extravagant in what way? By the evidence of this book, Timmons is a good Christian who apparently fastidiously declined to do any first-hand research on Bangkok brothel décor. But he doesn’t seem to have taken in any other local color either. In a city with perhaps the most thrillingly varied cuisine on earth, a group of Americans holding a meeting are served “a plate of sandwiches.”
Then there are the weird tics in Timmons’s prose, such as his horror of the verb said. Hardly anybody “says” anything. It’s always somebody retorted, uttered, intoned, nodded, interjected, chided, etc. Here is Bill St. John, Timmons’s protagonist: “‘Can we talk?’ St. John queried” — as if readers might not recognize a question mark when they see one. This is a poorly taught middle-schooler’s idea of creative writing.
An additional problem is the prose bloat. Nearly every line in the book is 40 percent longer than it needs to be. Example: “Raffino, a fiftyish-looking man with thick, black hair and large bushy eyebrows, stuck out his hand in the direction of St. John.” Better would be: “Raffino, fiftyish, with thick black hair and bushy eyebrows, offered St. John his hand.” I got a headache mentally pruning Timmons’s sentences.
While it’s a chore getting through this stuff, there are rewards. There’s some obviously well-researched info on ultralight aircraft. The plan is for St. John and his merry band to swoop into the Golden Triangle and fly out with the kidnapped girl (daughter of a rich American planning on running for president), and the technical side of this is nicely laid out. That operation gets gummed up by a current CIA bumbler who thinks St. John and his gang are themselves drug smugglers. Among those who help rescue the rescuers from both drug lord Khun Tuy and from the Burmese military is the head of a Buddhist monastery who’s known as “the abbot of vice.” He is as sketchily drawn as all the other characters in the novel, but he’s more interesting than most because he is emblematic of something important. This guy is a walking, talking embodiment of the East Asian gift for artfully intertwining the deeply spiritual with the resolutely pragmatic, and it seemed to me — a novice student of East Asian thinking — that Timmons got all this just right.
One thing I wondered about: there are many references in the novel to SLORC in Myanmar/Burma. That’s the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the name for the regime there until 1997. That’s when a U.S. PR firm suggested that the generals change the name of their godawful military dictatorship to something less creepy-sounding. Now it’s the State Peace and Development Council. Is Timmons’s story set prior to 1997? It’s unclear and distracting.
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Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. Last year’s The 38 Million Dollar Smile has just been published in East Asia by Monsoon Books under the title Bangkok Free Fall. Lipez and his partner, Joe Wheaton, have lived and traveled extensively in Southeast Asia during the last four winters and will return in 2011 from January through April. He has done reporting on Burma under a second pseudonym.