Not just another bargirl book

She Kept the Bar Between Them: Stories from Thailand

by Steve Rosse

BangkokBooks (2011)

Long-time Phuket resident (now living back in the States) and frequent contributor to a variety of Thailand publications in years past, Steve Rosse has recently added an e-book collection of new stories to his credits.

These disturbing, often blackly comic tales issue from a darker side of human nature. Some of the stories chronicle encounters with bargirls, and some of these verge on the pornographic. This would not normally be my cup of tea. Indeed readers afflicted with delicate sensibilities (me, for example) must prepare to have them offended, and younger readers would need parental guidance; in fact, I’d suggest kids do not read this book.

Yet each part of this collection, whether a “bargirl story” or not, is written with expert attention to craft and characters. The book should appeal to a wide readership. No need to be male and planning a trip to Bangkok—indeed, some of it might turn sex tourists away to other pursuits. At the same time, there are plenty of knowing allusions for old hands (one example among many: the “White Leopard” bar represents a tip of the hat to Jack Reynolds, considered by many to be the dean of Bangkok bargirl writers). Richly woven from dark threads and dark moments keenly observed, the stories are also fast reads, replete with effective images, nary an excess word to slow things down. The dialogue is convincing, and the dramatic relationships, many of them between bargirls and their johns, get very complex, at least from the johns’ perspectives. In part that’s because Rosse isn’t afraid to include a variety of unconventional, not to say twisted, psyches among his characters. The protagonist of “Necessary Things,” e.g., is a slave to compulsive rituals he is aware of, but over which he has no control.

I’ve read much of Rosse’s earlier work, and admired it for the most part. The stories collected here, however, often seem more empathetic, less quick to lacerate. Maybe they’re more mature, more fully appreciative of human complexity. And Rosse has fun with everything from science-fiction (“The Crooked Houses”) to the sardonic gem “Author, Author.” Stories such as “The Gambler” present a cynicism more typical of the Rosse old school, but are well written for all of that.

The first several stories may have been put up front to establish literary street cred, thereby perhaps lessening the unease some readers might experience while enjoying the later yarns. Certainly, the earlier stories belie the stereotypes. “Rain,” the first of them, is a hard, spare account of life on the edge of subsistence; the characters are Thai, but the message is universal. The second piece, “Pilgrimage,” takes an elegical tone, one nicely complemented, in what follows, by the comic surprise of “Gal Friday.” By the time we get to “The Scarlet Claw” and “Necessary Things,” though, Rosse is more clearly pandering to what much of the Thailand-book market reportedly wants. But what the hell—he pulls it off with insight and style.

Men writing fiction set in Bangkok risk being dismissed out of hand, unread. With Rosse’s latest book, I initially found myself falling victim to the same stereotyping. As soon as I saw the title my heart fell, and I thought, “Woe. Not another bargirl book?”

But no one should ever presume to tell writers what they can or can’t write about. Just because you feel most Bangkok bargirl stories are awful—no matter how many of them are in fact crude post-adolescent fantasy or mere pornography—that doesn’t mean that someone can’t write funny, enlightening or otherwise worthwhile yarns set in a Bangkok bar milieu.

In my opinion, Rosse has accomplished all of those things with this collection.


Other books by Steve Rosse

Thai Vignettes: Phuket and Beyond (Bangkok Book House, 2005)

Expat Days: Making a Life in Thailand (Bangkok Book House, 2006).