Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Breathing Water"

Timothy Hallinan is the author of the acclaimed Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers and other books.

He applied the “Page 69 Test” to Breathing Water, the third Poke Rafferty novel, and reported the following:
Let's see the hand of everyone who doesn't believe in serendipity. Okay, you can leave the room, all of you. You fail the class in advance.

Page 69 of my new Bangkok thriller, Breathing Water, states for the first time in the book the position in which my protagonist, Poke Rafferty, will find himself for the remainder of the story, which is to say poised precariously between two immense grinding wheels that could turn him and his little family to processed flour without a moment's hesitation.

And how did he get there? He won, in a poker game, the right to write the biography of one of Bangkok's most mysterious billionaires, a dark-skinned (that's important) former peasant from Isaan, the country's impoverished Northeast region. Pan, the billionaire, is the poster child for conspicuous consumption – he's built the Garden of Eden on the grounds of his estate, for one thing – and he delights in using his money to smear questionable substances beneath the noses of Thailand's elite (light-skinned) governing class. Oh, and he's prevented several previous biographies from reaching the public; one of them was abandoned only after the printing press burned down.

The morning after Poke wins the the right to do the book, he finds a story about it in the newspaper. By 7 AM, his life and those of his wife and daughter have been threatened if he writes the book. By 10 AM, he's been kidnapped, hooded, and told by his captors that he and his wife and children will die if he doesn't write the book.

The kidnappers drop him off on a nameless little street in Bangkok's Indian section, and when he pulls the pillowcase off his head, he's alone with some very uncomfortable thoughts.

... and today, the displays of naked power.

The floor plan to his apartment. His bank account and cell phone numbers. The kind of power most foreigners never experience.

Rafferty knows Thailand well enough to be aware that people above a certain social and political level are virtually unaccountable .... These are the people, the “big people,” whom Rose despises, the people who attend dress balls with blood on their hands. There are not many of them, relatively speaking, but they have immense mass and they exert a kind of gravity that bends tens of thousands of lives into the orbit of their will.

Most foreigners pass through the gravitational Gordian knot of Bangkok unscathed, like long-haul comets for whom our solar system is just something else to shoulder their way past. Foreigners have no formal status here. They come and go. They dimple the surface of the city's space-time like water-striding insects, staying a few months at a time and then flitting elsewhere. They don't have enough mass to draw the gaze of the individuals around whom the orbits wheel.

But Rafferty is being gazed at. And he knows all the way to the pit of his stomach that it's the worst thing that can happen to him. If these people decide it is in their best interest, they can blow through him and his cobbled-together family like a cannonball through a handkerchief.

If he goes in one direction, Rose and Miaow are in danger. If he goes in the other direction, Rose and Miaow are in danger. And “in danger” is a euphemism.

He pushes himself free of the building on legs that feel as numb as prosthetics, and makes his way down the soi to the boulevard.

Where he stops, looking left, then right. Which way to go?

Both directions are wrong, but one must be less wrong than the other.

The book is based on the very real power struggle that is currently threatening to tear the Kingdom of Thailand apart. Rafferty will get out of this alive only with the help of Bangkok's poorest and least powerful inhabitants, including street children. His family's lives will depend on whether, at least in the short run, the small can bring down the great.
Read an excerpt from Breathing Water, and learn more about the book and author at Timothy Hallinan's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: A Nail Through the Heart.

The Page 69 Test: The Fourth Watcher.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue