4 out of 4 stars
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Terence A. Harkin’s novel, The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, is set in Thailand during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, telling the story of Brendan Leary’s war experience and the relationship between American troops and the Thai people who accommodated them. Amazon classifies the novel as literary fiction or historical romance.
Pacifist Brendan Leary’s draft-dodging luck has run out when his lawyer failed to stop his orders to ship out to Southeast Asia. His safe job editing film for the army at their base in California ends when Brendan ships out to his new base in exotic Ubon, Thailand. There, his work involves editing combat footage for the 601st Photo Squadron. He is reasonably safe from deployment until he participates in a Black Panther march and his superior officers assign him to the position of combat cameraman for the Spectre night flights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
He lives off base in downtown Ubon, sharing a house with fellow G.I.s and their Thai girlfriends. Living in town gives them the opportunity to integrate closely with the Thais, and Brendan makes friends there, among them Tukada, a beautiful, heroin-addicted masseuse he becomes attracted to, and her half-brother Prasert. Brendan organises a bicycle race to Big Buddha, scheduled for the weekend before President Nixon arrives in China. The race serves many purposes: as a personal relations gesture to the Thais from the American soldiers, a means to make money, and a way to celebrate what Brendan and his friends believed was the ending of the Vietnam War. Although the race begins well and all participants are in high spirits, Brendan worries about Tukada, who has gone missing, and the other G.I.s doubt Prasert’s friendship and loyalty to the American army.
The novel started slowly, but once Brendan arrives in Ubon, the story picks up since Brendan’s impressions of the town and its people are so vivid; it felt like I was there with the character hanging out in clubs, enduring the monsoon and frightening flights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Being a freethinking pacifist in G.I.’s clothing gives Brendan a different perspective of the war compared to blindly obedient soldiers or those who relish it. Harkin has a talent for description and expressing the finer facets of thought and the existential crises Brendan goes through during the course of his enlistment. However, the story encompasses much more than tragedy. Harkin is a witty visual writer, and the humour in The Big Buddha Bicycle Race is subtle but memorable. The dialogue is on point. Some of the conversations between the characters reminded me of those in Pulp Fiction, as they sound real and are immersive.
Overall, The Big Buddha Bicycle Race is a superbly crafted story anyone who is interested in literary fiction, as well as war stories, especially those set during the Vietnam War, will appreciate. The author provides a helpful glossary of the Thai phrases and army terminology used in the book. There are no editing problems at all so I can rate this novel 4 out of 4 stars with confidence.
The Big Buddha Bicycle Race
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