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In his debut novel, Firewater frontman Tod A weaves an engrossing and frequently hilarious tale of cathartic adventure amid the sweltering backdrop of the Southeast Asian tropics.
Inspired by his own travels as an expatriate after leaving New York City in 2005, the story bursts to life with vivid depictions of life on the fictional island of Madu. It’s a Raymond Chandler crime thriller wrapped in a Kerouac travelogue, filtered through a pair of Bukowski beer goggles – at least on the surface. At its core, Banging the Monkey is about a man attempting to outpace his demons – a metaphor that comes to explosive, literal fruition during the street festival at the book’s climax.
The story centers on Mark O’Kane, a washed-up writer running from a past that includes a failed marriage and an over-hyped first novel that failed to deliver on its promise. He jumps on a shady job offer after a chance meeting with a mysterious stranger at a party. It’s an opportunity to skip town and start over, but upon arrival at the island, nothing goes as planned. Soon Mark is dodging corrupt police, unscrupulous smugglers, mafia assassins, earthquakes, monsoons, and dengue fever – all while attempting to kick a booze habit as a volcano looms ominously on the horizon.
Helping him navigate the impenetrable streets and jungles of Madu are a colorful band of fellow expats. There’s cantankerous Australian ex-sailor turned-bartender Cooney, charming journalist Raj, and flamboyant solicitor Monty. Mark also forms a bond with the locals, including a resourceful masseuse named Wulan and a three-legged dog called Tripod.
The author paints endearing portraits of these characters, as well as the strangers whom Mark encounters along the way, taking care to depict the Islanders with dignity and respect. His bile is reserved for those who come to Madu solely to exploit its people and resources: lecherous sex tourists, greedy loggers, and the politicians, corporations and crime bosses who allow corruption to flourish.
It’s a fast-paced novel and a quick read. O’Kane is flung from one precarious situation to the next, with neither he nor the reader given much time to catch their breath. Tod A writes with the punchy wit and fury that fueled his songwriting in Cop Shoot Cop and Firewater, and it’s fitting that music provides an important backdrop to the story. In addition to the ceremonial music, religious songs, pop, and hip-hop favored by the Islanders, the book pulses with rock ’n’ roll. The jukebox in Cooney’s bar plays scratchy punk, ska and blues 45s; the crew listens to The Clash’s Sandinista! while on a boat trip to the city to see a convincing drag queen sing Francoise Hardy and Peggy Lee; and Mark attempts to convert an unimpressed Wulan to The Ramones.
Thematically, Banging the Monkey is a companion piece to the two most recent Firewater albums – The Golden Hour (2008) and International Orange (2012). Both albums were recorded overseas and are bursting with the influences of Asian and Southeastern European music. Lyrically, they parallel the book’s trajectory. Some songs on The Golden Hour dovetail with the story itself: “Electric City” describes O’Kane’s memories of New York and Madu’s unreliable power grid, while “Three Legged Dog” is a metaphor for Mark’s life reflected in the form of his trusty canine companion. The haunting lyrics of “Paradise,” “6:45” and “Feels Like the End of the World” are echoed in parts of the novel.
The songs on International Orange are less explicitly linked to the book, being partially inspired by political conflicts in Turkey and Syria – yet they still come from the same world. It’s not a stretch to imagine “Feeling No Pain” as the soundtrack to Mark’s drunken journey across the ocean from New York to Madu, or “Ex-Millionaire Mambo” as a scathing indictment of the tourist trade on the island.
This book could not have arrived at a better time. The world has changed drastically in the months since its publication, and America is in arguably worse shape than when the author left. With the live music industry on hold, travel from the U.S. to other countries mostly prohibited, a banana republic-style government presiding over mass unemployment and social unrest, and many people adjusting to social distancing and the self-quarantine lifestyle, Banging the Monkey presents an alluring fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to chuck it all and head to the tropics right now? Maybe Mark O’Kane got out while the getting was good.
The following playlist was compiled by the reviewer after several margaritas in 100 degree heat and has not been endorsed by Tod A.