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FRIDAY, October 07, 2022
The cowboy’s back on Soi Cowboy

The cowboy’s back on Soi Cowboy

FRIDAY, November 04, 2016

Farang are being murdered in a most unsavoury way. Cue the contemplative harmonica music and settle in for a hilarious Russian folk tale

American writer Steve Rosse, whose evocative, amusing and poignant column on the expatriate life, The Rock, once graced these pages, makes a rain-soaked dash into the noir crime-mystery genre with the delightful novella “Bangkok Buckaroo”.
It’s every bit as cornpone cowboy as the title suggests, even if the Texan protagonist in his Stetson and bull-riding boots is named Joe DiMaggio. The name has nothing to do with the baseball hero, apart from the book being dedicated to Joltin’ Joe, as admired for his enduring love for Marilyn Monroe as for his fame on the field of dreams. Our Joe’s Italian grandfather arrived in the US for a short-term job and decided to stay. 
But, for the grandson, a former oil-drilling wildcatter, “Once a man has been in Thailand a few years, he wasn’t ever going nowhere else.” Would that this were true for Rosse, who moved back to the States some years back after a warm decade on Phuket. He appears to have left his heart in the Kingdom, though. Its charms and its quirks are as magically described as if he’d never left.
Rosse’s writings for The Nation were compiled in the books “Thai Vignettes” (2005) and “Expat Days” (2006) and in 2011 he published the highly amusing “She Kept the Bar Between Them”. This time he’s 
roaming the range along Sukhumvit Road, where the deer and the 
antelope play with perversion. 
Allusions to the Wild West roll through “Bangkok Buckaroo” like tumbleweed. The city used to be pretty lawless, after all, and in some quarters still is. Rosse briefly recounts the tale of the US Air Force veteran whose western garb earned him the nickname Cowboy, the man whose bar for fellow expatriate warriors was such a success that others in the neighbourhood followed his example, resulting in the street we know today as Soi Cowboy.
The story opens and closes (with a shotgun blast) in El Norte, a half-hearted go-go joint in a little-noticed lane off Soi Cowboy, where the Buddha shrine nestles betwixt six-foot-wide steer horns “bushy with a thousand dried-up jasmine garlands”. The owner, Wide Wally Wahls, is known as Dubya. He says if he owned Bangkok and Hell, he’d rent out Bangkok and live in Hell. The showgirls dance with difficulty to the music of a live mariachi duo.
Joe’s a regular but a teetotaller, shorn of bad habits by the Thai lawyer for whom he does a bit of sleuthing. The lawyer has a major wife he likes and two minor wives he doesn’t like, but he keeps them because they’re his major wife’s only friends. The ladies have lunch together at the Hyatt every Thursday. 
The lawyer cured Joe of his dissolution with a stay at a forest monastery, and hence the book’s preponderance of Buddhist wisdom, aptly applied to all manner of pursuits with thought-provoking (and sometimes funny) effect. The book is marbled with mirth and festooned with philosophy, an endearing match.
Surveying the red-light whirligig, Joe ponders the Buddha’s advice to “stop seeing the world as two-sided, good or bad, right or wrong, male or female”. If instead “we see everything as single and whole, made up of different kinds of parts, well the Buddha says that’s when the suffering stops. 
“All these folks on Soi Cowboy, they are who and what they are. They all desire, they all fear, they all hate. They all give, they all accept, they all love. They were born this way, and they’ll die this way.”
There’s a lot of this philosophising in the book, which is by and large a collection of observations about life in Bangkok en route to solving the mystery of why three Americans have been found dead in sexually grotesque circumstances. Rosse is in his element painting portraits of comical foreigners as they confront Buddhist truths amid the good, the bad and the ugly in ordinary Thai life.
Joe has a regular motorcycle-taxi “chauffeur”, the sullen but alarmingly efficient Brother Bear (Phi Mee). “Driving a Honda Dream wasn’t something he thought about, and it wasn’t something he did. It was something he was.”
There’s a police colonel, Than Sunee, with a fetching aide named Corporal Cookie, a cynical Dane called Mads who teaches meditation to backpackers, and an array of shady Russian types running the Hellfire Club, a pricey hangout for fetishists. Key intelligence in the case comes from a US Army general who fell in love with a cabaret ladyboy, paid for her operation and married her. 
There are a couple of fascinating history lessons, such as the B-29 bombing raids on Bangkok in World War II, chosen for target practice ahead of demolishing heavily defended Tokyo. “That was the end of the Village of the Olive Trees,” Rosse writes. The destruction and the hasty post-war rebuilding transformed King Taksin’s pleasant green capital forever.
And all down the trail there is the endless amusement of gliding, well-crafted prose. On Sukhumvit, “anything vertical was supporting what it was designed to support and then a hundred other things that had been added later.” The mamasan at the Hellfire grins at Joe “like a fox grins at a lame rabbit”. Back home he falls asleep “like a trout on the gravel in the bottom of a stream”.
Rosse has the modernist’s wonton disregard for commas and hyphens and, after a vertical chase scene up a construction crane, his story ends abruptly, though not anticlimactically. The crime is solved and the villains are dead, but there’s an unrequited love leaving the whiff of a possible sequel in the air. That’s entirely fitting for cowboy yarns, once endlessly spun off into serial adventures on the radio and the screen that left the fans panting for more.


Bangkok Buckaroo
By Steve Rosse
Published by
Available at,US$4.99 (Bt175)