By Paul Dorsey
The Sunday Nation
I had a copy of “Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo” for two months before I started reading it. The author, Richard S Ehrlich, must have been wondering why it was taking me so long to get through a 151-page book. When I emailed him to say I’d finished it, he replied, “Wow, congratulations!”
I recognise cheeky sarcasm when I see it, but I’ll happily let that go. Because this is no elf of a story. What seems at first to be madcap comedy is in fact a psychological drama. And, as quick a read as “Sheila Carfenders” is, it’s got a staggering amount of depth to it.
This deceptively weighted novella is a distillation of “tons of notes, documents, transcribed interviews, tapes and fresh media” amassed over decades, much of it having to do with the psychology of the disturbed mind. Ehrlich originally trained in the workings of the brain and, while making his living instead as a foreign correspondent, it seems he’s been assessing us all these many years.
Much of the book is experimental in nature, the characters’ fluctuating levels of sanity giving rise to strange speech and concepts, and in this, Ehrlich was also attempting to replicate the “cut-up” compositional technique most famously championed by William S Burroughs (whom he greatly admires and once interviewed).
Richard S Ehrlich, an American journalist based in Thailand, earned an enduring place in the literary pantheon of Southeast Asia with the chubby 1992 non-fiction book, “‘Hello My Big Big Honey!’ Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews”.
Co-authored with Canadian Dave Walker, who died in still-unexplained circumstances in Cambodia in 2014, “Big Big Honey” was a pioneering behind-the-scenes study of the nightlife scene that’s deservedly enjoyed worldwide acclaim for its honesty as well as its poignancy.
Ehrlich has since contributed to other works, including “King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life’s Work”, but we’ve waited 25 years to see his name this prominently on the cover.
And, while “Sheila Carfenders” is presented at face as fiction, those “tons of interviews” with real people laid the foundation for the tale, and the almost Dadaist splicing of language makes the story “more real than real”.
“At the New Year’s Eve party, everybody is eating leeches on ice” is the nail-gun opening line. More disorienting craziness follows, and why not, because the party’s taking place in the “psycho ward” of a San Francisco hospital.
“Sheila Carfenders herself is often a verbatim collection of mentally ill women who I interviewed,” the author told me. Many of the quotes in the book were actually spoken by mentally unhinged individuals, politicians among them. “This is not wherever you’re from!” is a standout line worth remembering.
“I have a bad reaction to robots,” poor, deluded Sheila tells her shrink, Doctor Mask. “For years, I was a robot’s motel slave.”
The Mask, as the doc becomes known (or just Mask), realises he’s got a live one here, even though it said on her admission report, “Thinks she’s dead.” Mask has found 17 different personalities in Sheila’s mind, three of them “corpses”.
She’s ripe for his particularly “vicious form of psychiatric therapy”, which extends to beating patients with an electric cattle prod while they’re crushed in a straitjacket. Don’t flinch, though, because there is indeed much comedy in this tragedy.
Fortunately, the Mask has to make a quick exit from the US, sparing us gratuitous scenes of ghastly torture. Unfortunately, he’s taking Sheila along with him, to some decidedly backward Asian nation, where she’ll play a key role in his scheming to foment a coup.
Before anyone rushes to judgement, it isn’t Thailand – not really, anyway. Like the characters themselves, the country is a composite of multiple actual others. The president, Akimbo, is more like the blathering buffoons of Central America and some parts of Africa (and Washington, currently).
Akimbo is as insane as anyone else in the book, of course, first met sprawled across his palace banquet table in an ooze of leftovers. The soup has been “cat’s hearts, mice eyes and baked beans, plus eight tiny diamonds, the size of caviar”. It is the president’s monthly habit to dine on diamonds and have his teeth, tongue and lips painted gold.
On broadcasts to the nation, he claims astonishing superpowers, “though no one believes him”. He owns “the only mirror allowed in the entire country”, a gift from “Queen Lizardbest” (Elizabeth II, more correctly).
Adopting the slogan “You must love me!” he is in denial about just how much the suffering populace hates him – and his wife too. Mrs Akimbo is carried about on a silver platter, “a gelatinous amoeba in stretched pants, stilettos and a bullet-proof vest” who complains that the flies plaguing the palace assure her they have official permits to be there.
Mask has “meanwhile installed Sheila in the city’s red-light district, to ‘meet and greet’ officers of the regime and other influential people”. She spends the evenings “strangling herself with eels of turpentine, inhaling its sinister fumes and lacing liquid whip marks on her eyes”, yet at the same time, she is the plotter Mask’s eyes and ears.
The squalid Sunshine Club takes its name from a bar Ehrlich knew in Mombasa, but he admitted to me it’s a nod to “Thailand’s decadence”. “Oxlips, the bar tout,” he said, “includes some Bangkok quotes when he offers to provide ‘all girls air-conditioned’ and other cheap thrills.”
Despite a few rough edges typo-wise, the novella is highly imaginative and fascinating in its jaunty leaps, but of course, in stories of human dementia there is always a quiet and informative sadness. “We will see tomorrow become tomorrow in this book,” Sheila says at one point, and, at another, the Mask advises us, “Believe it or else.”
There is Chaplin at his zaniest, a current of sorrow just below the surface. There are flourishes of “The Mouse that Roared”, the 1955 Cold War satire. This is a story teetering between absurd hallucination and revelatory Zen koan. The tale can be topical (Russian meddling) and poetic. “Will you take me home tonight?” Sheila begs. “I know you will. You’ll take me home. And I’ll sit beside you. In your old drunken car.”
At the end, justice at least feels as though it’s been done. Ehrlich isn’t finished with us yet, though. He’s planning sequels in prose, has contacted Hollywood about possibilities for the big screen, and has already worked with universities in the US and Canada to produce an hour-long virtual-reality version of the story, brought to life via Ocular Rift.
Considering that “Sheila Carfenders” was an idea that popped into Ehrlich’s head when he noticed the seductively shapely front end of a passing vehicle outside his San Francisco window maybe four decades ago, this yarn has some heavy life to it yet, more real than reality.
Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask &
By Richard S Ehrlich
Published privately, 2017
Available at Amazon.com, US$10 (Bt325)