Leer and Loathing

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JEFFREY RESSNERLost luggage, surly taxi drivers, a bout of food poisoning--these are usually the most outrageous things that happen to writers who chronicle their globetrotting adventures. Consequently, as a literary genre the travel narrative is often genteel to the point of yawn-inducing boredom. Maybe that's why first-time author Amit Gilboa's recent book, Off the Rails in Phnom Penh, is causing such a stir in Southeast Asia. Just one glance at the subtitle--Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja--tells you his hellish holiday in Cambodia will unfold more like a gonzo rant from Hunter S. Thompson than an erudite essay by Paul Theroux.The first time Gilboa hit Phnom Penh was on a side trip from neighboring Vietnam for a quick visa extension. He returned in 1996, scribbling notes, keeping journals, dodging bullets. He befriended a group of dope-smoking, sex-obsessed slackers who worked as English teachers, hanging out with them as they visited degrading brothel villages and chomped away at pot pizzas while trying to avoid AK-47 attacks. He noted how the serenity of the Buddhist wats contrasted with the stench of the city's slums and the bursts of automatic gunfire. Cambodia is like you're always tripping, one female teacher warned him at the onset of his journey, and she wasn't referring to stumbling on the sidewalk.Under not-so-subtle chapter headings like Lawlessness and Drugs, Gilboa spins a fascinating if somewhat fractured tale about a beautiful country whose people have been ravaged by decades of turmoil. His main characters may be the unsavory crew of stoned sex-pats who indulge their libidos with two-dollar hookers. But the real villains here are Cambodia's so-called leaders, who turned the once-spiritual haven into a bedlam of decadence and violence. Fortunately, there's enough historical and social perspective to give meaningful context to the tawdry sleaze that drips off the pages. What could have been a merely exploitative book can also be read as a lesson about the country's exploited victims.As a writer, Gilboa is a better observer than he is a stylist. Much of his story reads like the raw notes of a wannabe journalist as he frantically describes the mayhem swirling around him. At times he resorts to listing various quotes from his teacher buddies, or seemingly transcribes one of their rambling, brutal monologues about shagging a young prostitute--word for word, in lurid detail. Forget about nuanced, three-dimensional characters here; aside from our humble narrator, there isn't a memorable fellow in the bunch, just a parade of freaks who blur together in a haze of marijuana smoke, gunpowder and flopsweat.Perhaps unintentionally, the funniest portions of the book depict the author as an intrepid anthropologist determined to examine the debauchery first-hand--purely for the sake of field research. Margaret Mead would not be amused. By the time he begins devouring slices of Merry Jane's extra-happy pizza toppings, he shucks all pretense and waxes about the unique, if not delicious, culinary experience that leaves him crawling on all fours. Bloodshot yet wide-eyed, Gilboa claims innocence throughout his stay, even as he racks up bar bills that read Beer-$4, Juice-$2, Girl-$4. Still, with its mix of random jottings, bizarre character sketches and diary entries, Gilboa's account plunges readers into the center of the Khmer storm.