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Irresistible rhythms of the Big Mango

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Kevin Cummings keeps the drumbeat going with a second collection of essays and profiles from Bangkok's expat writer scene. A lot of heart went into this - and timpani

FULL disclosure first: 
1. Author Kevin Cummings and I became friends after I reviewed his first book, “Bangkok Beat”, in 2016. 
2. He invited me to write the foreword to this book, “Different Drummers”. 
3. Whatever idiot he got to write the fore?word has for some reason clumsily referred to the quite well-known author John Burdett as “Jim Burdett”. 
4. And if you think that’s the only criticism I have of “Different Drummers”, keep read?ing.
“Drummers” constitutes the further adventures of a constellation of expatriate authors forming the main Bangkok cluster but observable throughout Southeast Asian space. 
Many of the names dropped in “Bangkok Beat” reappear here with good reason, but Cummings was deliberately listening for alternative rhythms for this collection, and the veteran Lawrence Osborne and rookie Frank Hurst are among those getting fresh and interesting coverage. “Drummers” thus has much in common with “Beat”, but crosses into significant new territory.

Irresistible rhythms of the Big Mango

Gleaned chiefly from Cummings’ person?al blog, Thailand Footprint, the chapters alternate between interviews with authors and reviews of their work. Cummings’ inter?view questions are always amusingly cacoph?onic, as if to make sure the subject and the reader are paying attention. “What have you got against windchimes?” he asks Osborne out of the blue. “They seem harmless enough.” 
The reviews seem as unwaveringly kind as Cummings is in person but, once you’ve read enough of them, you start to notice the occa?sional barb buried like a landmine between the lines. He still appears to not quite “get” Collin Piprell’s ongoing futuristic, satirical and admittedly dense Magic Circles trilogy, for instance, but he chuckles about his slow?ness to the grasp and is obviously keen to keep trying. 
When Cummings isn’t at the helm of a chapter, the rudder falls into the capable hands of thriller writer Thom Locke (using his nom de plume, T Hunt Locke) and “the poet noir” John Gartland, both of whom bring more entertainment to the table. Gartland has an even bigger array of wry and biting poems on offer, including some of the best stuff he’s written to date. Locke on his watch adroitly quizzes Jim Algie and pens another touching memoir of Mama Noi, the belle of the origi?nal Check Inn 99 cabaret, a country girl who bedazzled Hollywood stars.

Irresistible rhythms of the Big Mango

He gets around, that Kevin Cummings does. With apologies to Michael Cooper, who shot the photos for the Beatles' "Sgt Pepper" cover, replicated with a whole new cast by Colin Cotterill on the cover of "Different Drummers". Paul being dead, Cummings has written a new coda for "A Day in the Life". 

Check Inn, currently living in formidable premises on Sukhumvit Soi 33, continues to figure prominently in the grind of gridlocked writers in need of dry shoulders to moisten. In another telling example of how “Drummers” differs from “Beat”, the club has since moved three, make that four times in search of a permanent perch. 
Its deservedly revered proprietor Chris Catto-Smith has relinquished managerial duties to Keith Nolan, a host of grace to match his, and also a downright giddy singer-key?boardist who, as a magnet for other great musical talents, continues the mission of reviving the club’s legendary status. Cummings would have faced scorn if he had?n’t featured both men in his ongoing chron?icle.
Another nightspot lately vies for the atten?tions of the writerly mob, though – Queen Bee on Sukhumvit 26, equally laden with terrific music and overseen by an equally amiable innkeeper, John Branton, who herein keeps up with Cummings’ interview style and often outpaces him.
Kevin Wood, a one-man band or the fre?netic frontman for an ensemble depending on the gig, rounds out the musical notation in “Drummers”. He performs at both places.
The author’s no-relation namesake Joe Cummings is an active musician too, of course, but will eternally be toasted most, as he is here, as the original lord of the Lonely Planet Thailand.
Hugh Gallagher is known to make rhythms of a kind as well and even appeared on the stage of the Apollo Theatre in New York City, but he comes into Kevin Cummings’ focus primarily for a quirky bible of post?modern advice titled “Yo Ching: Ancient Knowledge for Streets Today”.
Timothy Hallinan (“Hot Countries”), Matt Carrell (“Vortex”) and Christopher G Moore (all those great Vincent Calvino mysteries) are all in “Drummers”, as is Chad Evans, who wrote a guide to Moore’s oeuvre called “Calvino’s World”.
Other writ?ers featured are JD Villines (zombie thriller “Dead Bangkok”), Philip Coggan (“Spirit Worlds”) and Stephen W Palmer aka Iain Donnelly, whose “Angkor Cloth Angkor Gold” will be reviewed in this space imminently. They and Colin Cotterill, who finds time to illustrate Cummings’ jottings while at the same time producing endless books of his own, offer a lot of helpful insights into the nature of writ?ing and the machinations of the muse.
Osborne is undeniably the most |accomplished and most famous of the authors included, having even been chosen by the Raymond Chandler estate to write another Marlowe novel, which resulted in “Only to Sleep”. Cummings talks to |him and reviews “Beautiful Animals” |and “Hunters in the Dark”, the latter about to be filmed in Cambodia.
Added to all of these are visits with the inspired and abjectly unapologetic Dutch painter Peter Klashorst, who is no friend of Facebook’s censors, and his counterpoint, the gentlemanly elder statesman of journalism in and around Asia, Australian David Armstrong.
What else has changed since the original “Beat”?
Well, in place of a memorial to the then-recently deceased Stirling Silliphant, there is homage to another Bangkok-ensconced American hero of letters, the all-rounded rounder Jerry Hopkins, who left us this past June.
The other big change since 2016 is the most intriguing of all. In “Beat”, Cummings was the chronicler of Bangkok noir. And the chief attributes inherent in the novels men?tioned – not ALL gloom but certainly pack?ing a lot of Chandler’s LA angst and jocular smog-bound repartee – coated the chapters with the same soot as everything else in our city. 
With “Drummers”, it seems as though much of the shroud of inner-city noir dark?ness has in just those two years dissipated. This book feels brighter, with glimpses of a new dawn, and surely nothing to do with the sense that the black spell cast over Thailand is lifting just because elections are imminent. 
With a few exceptions, like James Newman (“Fun Punch City”), bless him, who has remained deliciously, viciously steeped in Kerouac and Burroughs and Hammett, and to a lesser extent Thom Locke, with his exhil?arating mad mystery-races through the town’s landmarks, expat literature in Thailand has begun to delve into more philosophical mus?ings. 
There are more books now examining our sense of place, the fallacies of self-worth and recollection and, in anthologies, we are rewarded with overviews of what has made writing in Southeast Asia so interesting all along. 
The darkness has not entirely lifted, by any means, and its chills continue to be most welcome. In “Bangkok Asset” last year, John-or-is-it-Jim Burdett conceived not one but two of the unholiest scenes ever put to paper, and Moore jack-knifed into expat suicide in “Jumpers”. 
But Moore also wrote “Memory Manifesto” and has now produced the equal?ly pensive non-fiction “Rooms” (again, review forthcoming). There are foreign writers here now producing not just scary crime thrillers but rather exploring far broader lit-scapes, like Piprell in his dazzling, deep-thought Magic Circles series that began with “MOM”. 
Cummings has happily moved on too in his chronicling. At the same time, he carefully replaces the best parts of “Beat” with worthy substitutes in “Drummers”. The former fea?tured the expat comic-magician Doctor Penguino and the latter has one of the world’s best stand-up comedians, the American shakedown artist Doug Stanhope, who per?formed in Bangkok last January and had a lot of the literary crowd in the audience. 
Yes, there is room for criticism. Quite apart from no one else noticing the Jim Burdett gaffe before it anchored in print, no one seems to have noticed John Gartland, in a far too generously budgeted screed favouring Brexit (succinctly parried by Burdett just pages later) referring to the former British prime minis?ter David Cameron as Campbell. These were obvious blunders in haste, though, and I stand by my assertion in print that Gartland is by far the best of all the expatriate writers in Southeast Asia. 
Less forgivable is Cummings’ cut and paste of his blog posts without the helpful addition of dates or amendments. Thus, the closure of Check Inn at its original location is “announced” in one chapter, seemingly about to occur, and then its rebirth in the next, nei?ther with context, leaving readers of the book who are unfamiliar with that rapid advance of history mystified.
That said, “Drummers” has fun with all of what’s going on and as a result it’s quite enter?taining to read. Anyone not yet immersed in the scene will feel welcome to grab a pair of drumsticks and join in the beat.

Different Drumers:Bangkok Beat Redux 
Published by Frog in the Mirror Press 2018
Available at Amazon.com
Bt376

 

Published : January 04, 2019

By : Paul Dorsey The Nation Weekend