Romancing the East by Jerry Hopkins (Tuttle)

 

Jerry Hopkins is approaching the 40-book mark and for that alone we should all go to Bangkok and take him out on the town. His writing life has swept from rock-and-roll L.A. to Hawaii to Thailand, and his biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive, has become a classic. If there's one writer who's fully qualified to examine the lives and work of other writers, it's the redoubtable Mr. Hopkins.

His latest book is subtitled A Literary Odyssey from the Heart of Darkness to the River Kwai, and it's a trip worth taking. Think of it as a series of conversations about almost every writer who has ever made Asia their subject matter--thirty-four writers in thirty-two essays. It's far too lively a discussion to be thought of as a survey course of literature about Asia--the opinions and insights found here are born from a barroom, not a classroom. And that is a very good thing indeed. 

Hopkins examines the lives, work, and settings of other authors in a way that makes you want to read the books he writes about and find out more information about their authors. Each essay is carefully and thoughtfully written by a man who obviously loves to read and who respects the writers whose books come into his life.

Not for him the cheap shot--he uses humor in his portrayals of writers but he is never snide. It's difficult to imagine that anyone could find something new to say about Anna Leonowens, the lady whose book is still banned in the Kingdom of Thailand, as well as the movies that were spawned by it, but Hopkins does. "...Anna Leonowens was the Victorian era's version of a "gonzo" journalist, a predecessor to Hunter Thompson, a writer with imagination and bravado who didn't let facts get in the way of a good story." Suddenly a picture of a hoop-skirted lady sitting beside Hunter in the backseat of a convertible with the top down, "just outside of Barstow when the drugs kicked in," is rooted in the imaginations of readers, and Anna and the King of Siam will never be the same.

"Elfish everything seems, for everything as well as everybody is small, and queer, and mysterious," Hopkins quotes Lafcadio Hearn in 19th century Japan and then remarks, "It is as if the writer were describing a visit to Middle Earth, where hobbits lived." Hopkins is a master at hooking his readers with a well-turned description and then launching into a provocative literary discussion; his essay on Kipling alone, with literary criticism by Teddy Roosevelt included, is enough to bring a whole new wave of readers to Kim.

Hopkins is not, as he terms W. Somerset Maugham with a fair degree of asperity, "a predatory gossip." In his examination of Marguerite Duras, he tells about her sexagenarian habit of downing "up to nine liters of cheap Bordeaux a day" as a way of explaining her limited literary output at that time ("as little as one sentence a day.") And he all but cheers for her when she "sobers up in 1982 at a Paris hospital" and finishes the book that will make her famous, The Lover, when she is 68 years old.

Even when he could rightfully be vicious, when he writes about what he knows well that has been claimed by men who know it far less thoroughly, Jerry Hopkins is kind, fair-minded, and insightful. Michel Houellebecq and John Burdett are followers of a time-honored tradition, come to Thailand, find the sex industry, and write about it. "Their novels placed in Thailand," Hopkins says, "...were among the better crafted of the lot, but none of the others exceeded them in grisly exploitation, creating a Thailand that was not only licentious, but also ridiculous." He goes on to back up this assessment by letting the writers' books prove it for him, which they accomplish masterfully.

"For those who enjoy sleeping with literary ghosts," Hopkins provides locations where these august shades might still be hanging around. Although by no means a guidebook, tucking away a copy of Romancing the East in the bottom of a carry-on could be one of the happiest decisions that a traveler to Asia will make. Take it on a plane with you; give it to a friend; find Jerry Hopkins and buy him a beer. ~Janet Brown