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Cambodia Noir


Cambodia Noir

CAMBODIA NOIR by Nick Seeley is, in a way, the feel-good book of the year. After you read it, you will feel good about living in a developed country; maintaining sobriety (or the equivalent thereof); and having a safe, boring, predictable job. Seeley, a journalist whose past beats have included Phnom Penh, puts the reader on the street and in the jungle in this powerful debut novel. You will itch, look over your shoulder, and overreact to strange noises one-hundredfold after reading it. Naturally, I couldn’t put it down, even when I should have.

The book reads like a dark collaboration between Graham Greene and Hunter Thompson, with a dash of a coherent Williams Burroughs thrown in. Burroughs is referenced obliquely, as is Allen Ginsberg and The Psychedelic Furs. There were probably a few other Easter eggs scattered throughout this fever dream narrative that is so powerful that, yes, you may actually feel like you have a fever when you’re done reading it. Most of CAMBODIA NOIR alternates between two viewpoints. The primary point of view would be the first person present narrative of Will Keller, an American expatriate who has taken an alcohol-soaked, drug-laden residence in Phnom Penh. Will is employed as a photographer for an English-language Cambodian newspaper, the publication of which seems to be a miracle, given the amount of substances that he and his co-workers imbibe on a daily basis. Will is chased by his own demons, which reveal themselves gradually over the course of the book, and is unable to rid himself of the dark visions that haunt his sleeping as well as his waking hours.

"The book reads like a dark collaboration between Graham Greene and Hunter Thompson, with a dash of a coherent Williams Burroughs thrown in."

Things change, and not necessarily for the better, when a beautiful woman named Kara Saito arrives and hires Will to locate her sister, June. Interestingly enough, June interned at Will’s paper for a short time but has disappeared, leaving most of her belongings behind. These include a diary, the entries of which alternate with Will’s narrative throughout most of the book. Soon enough, Will learns that neither woman is who they are represented to be, and his hunt for June has attracted the attention of the wrong people on several different levels. He concludes that there are very few people he can trust in Phnom Penh and in the jungles that constantly threaten to encroach upon the city. The sides don’t keep switching, not really; it’s just that everyone is on their own side, and the advantage constantly shifts.

The result --- enhanced by that first person present point of view --- is that the reader truly never knows what is going to happen next, as Will stumbles from moment to moment, in a place where a cut on the leg can mean a prolonged illness or even death. Neosporin, it seems, is not readily available. What Will does have in ample supply is street smarts, balanced by a dedication to make things, if not right, as close to right as possible. It may not be enough, though, as he heads toward a close-quarters, cataclysmic conclusion that neither he nor the reader will see coming.

The violence and situations in CAMBODIA NOIR prevent me from recommending it without reservation. Also, the pacing seemed a bit off in spots, particularly at the beginning and end. This has more to do with Seeley’s realistic portrayal of locale, events and characters than with any narrative deficiencies on his part (I mean, does your life seem perfectly paced all the time? Mine sure isn’t). I loved every word of this gorgeous, frightening work, in spite of or perhaps because of the fact that it gave me screaming nightmares, and still does. It’s a drug that will stay in your system long after you think you’ve expelled it. And like a drug, it should come with a warning label. It’s that good.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 1, 2016

Cambodia Noir
by Nick Seeley

  • Publication Date: March 21, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501106090
  • ISBN-13: 9781501106095