Vagabond – Review


A.P. Wolf (Fourth Estate)
by Carolyn Gaines

“I am sitting on the twenty-fourth storey of a hotel in Singapore.
I am having a very serious nervous breakdown.
I am too frightened to leave the room.”

Enter the nameless hero of Wolf’s genius first novel, Vagabond. It is a story of twenty-four hour rave-ups, cock fights, mah-jong, martial arts, and unsafe sex in the kampongs and back-alleys of old Singapore. It features a pair of dogs called Rape and Pillage, a cat called Shitbag, a very large and dangerous monkey, a crazed older brother called Dave, a posse of under-age and over-curious daughters of local army officers, various murderous marines, and Richard Chan, a most awe-inspiring gangster in all of Singapore. And, one hell of a lot of Tiger beer.

Admittedly, I was not overly enthused by these first lines of this particular story. After this droll, if not quite depressing intro, the nameless protagonist goes on to tell the reader that he is sure (because he is so close to the Singapore airport) a DC-10 is about to jettison through his twenty-fourth floor hotel room. He is seemingly on the run from the notorious, nefarious, elusive yet effective criminal Mister Lee Kuan Facking Yew. He is sure that a mysterious “they” are out to get him. So sure, in fact, that even in his gin induced almost comatose state he insists that his room service be left in the hall and the check slid under the door for him to sign, later.
Each time the telephone rings he douses it with a fresh fifth of gin.

“I’ve been drunk now for… I’ve forgotten how many days. No hangovers though. When I wake up from my nightly hour’s sleep-and I only get that by drinking myself into a total coma-I just drink again. When I feel sober, I drink twice as much; if I’m sick, I drink more to take the taste away again.”

Really, does this look like a pleasant way to spend those few precious hours of free time? Reading about a raging alcoholic??

Thank you, Mr. Wolf for losing track of your original point and sending us readers on your unintentional journey through a wild and crazy childhood.

The nameless hero, whom I can only assume to be the author, has been brought to a small island off Singapore to live with his mother, older brother, and several younger brothers. The mostly absent father is a British naval officer with a bad temper and a penchant for Tiger beer. Mom, about eighty percent of the time, is flying high on cheap gin, expounding her vast, liberal, sexual knowledge upon her two older sons (who, in turn, are trying to steal her bottle of gin). The “younger boys” are also quickly learning the value of a can of Tiger; that is, to escape the downright misery of a life where their entire family are seasoned alcoholics and just plain crazy.

Veering back to our hero, he takes us on fucking WILD adventures. One day, as he is taking a young girl over to an even smaller island for a nice afternoon of “hide the salam'”, they encounter a man with a very large monkey (macque) tied to a breadfruit tree. The man is whacking the monkey on the head with a piece of wood, screaming, nay, chanting,”Now YOU die, monkey…now YOU die, monkey…” Our hero proceeds to question the man about why, in fact, he feels he must pummel his macque. After listening to some left field story, he takes the macque off the man’s hands, into his boat. He is determined that this monkey will live a better life tied to a breadfruit tree in HIS yard. So, imagine this scenario: A small canoe over shark-infested waters, carrying our hero, his girl, Rape, Pillage, and a shrieking, head-rubbing monkey. The ensuing story is just hilarious.

The story just keeps getting funnier and more outrageous as the pages turn. Vagabond even has a great ending. I won’t be cruel and impart it to you now, but I will tell you that it’s refreshing to read a book where the ending is not “classically American.” Everybody doesn’t live happily ever after, and the hero’s spirit is eventually broken. (sigh)