Land of Smiles, the debut novel from Jess Kroll, reads like a prequel to The Great Gatsby, if Nick Carraway was removed and replaced by Gatsby himself as narrator. Like Gatsby, Smiles revolves around a tantalizingly reserved woman and a host of all-too-available substitutes, and, like that quintessential American novel, the enigma at the center of Smiles is not the attainment of the American dream but rather what the pursuit of that dream says about the land itself.
On its surface, however, Land of Smiles could not be further removed from America. The novel is set in Thailand, in a smallish town named Chanthaburi. “Chan” sits about a hundred miles east of the larger Thai cities of Bangkok and Pattaya, both of which may be more familiar to some Western minds as destinations for booze, drugs and sex tourism. The narrator and central character of Smiles—Ethan Torrini—is acutely aware of this Thai reputation for decadence, and goes to great lengths to distinguish himself from the garden-variety farang, the Thai word for anyone of Western origin.
Ethan, a sober, reserved individual with an artistic bent, is drifting in an awkward post-collegiate, pre-professional state; turned down by a couple of law schools and waitlisted at another, he decides to join his boyhood friend Ken in Chan. Ken is definitely a chaser after the American dream. An ambitious and athletic man, he is a partner in a startup gem trading business and brings Ethan on in a menial position to answer emails and write descriptions for the jewels the fledgling business lists on eBay.
The contrast between the ambitious Ken and the drifting Ethan, as well as the jewel trade, serve as central organizing motifs in the novel. Kroll is an extremely controlled and gifted writer, and his first-person narrative seldom allows Ethan’s opinions or thoughts to interject themselves into the dialogue and descriptions. This reserved narration is bought into humorous juxtaposition with Ethan’s eBay advertising copy of the jewels (“FANTASTIC, FLAWLESS!!!”) which, when run against laconic descriptions of various forms of vice (equally deserving yet devoid of exclamation points), often provide more clues into Ethan’s inner life than more straightforward exposition might provide. The smooth narrative control Kroll deploys throughout the novel also serves to highlight—sometimes breathtakingly—the scenes in which Ethan narrates something he cares deeply about. The descriptions of Ethan’s drawing are some of the best moments in the novel:
The veins in the back of my hand branched like green mountain trails…Perhaps the people I drew were composites, using pieces of myself as mortar. My fingers moved on their own, like a heart beating. I’d always wondered if art had less to do with talent than muscle control, the ability to twitch tiny bones, adjusting the motion and feeling out what worked.
The trope of control leading to moments of release, in which true feelings are exposed, is also deployed in Ethan’s encounters with the main love interest in the book, a Thai woman named Gin. Gin is initially described in the same language as the jewels Ethan studies during the day: “Her long, jet-black hair shined in a way I’d never learned to draw…Perfect symmetry, both sides of her face an exact duplicate of each other…She has no lines or marks or shadows…She was abstract.” For Ethan, the thing that makes one jewel worth more than another is the same thing that makes one woman more attractive than another. To be sure, symmetry and flawlessness are part of the equation, but it is the enigmatic final statement in the above passage—the thought that perfection somehow involves being abstract—that makes Smiles into a much more interesting work than the average love story with an exotic backdrop. Ethan falls in love with Gin for the same reason he’s interested in the blank piece of paper: its flawlessness and emptiness is the thing in which he can inscribe himself, a person that, to this point in his life at least, willfully remains a blank sheet himself.
What makes all of this work together is Kroll’s superb control over the language and pacing of the book. His dialogue is punctuated by the broken English and Thai language which serve to add texture and, indeed, release from the smoothly controlled narrative flow. Ethan’s contrast with Ken—a good-natured man wound up in the pursuit of wealth, as well as the even starker contrast between Ethan and the omnipresent multitudes of farang out for the pursuit of lust—mirror the stylistic interspersions of the choppy dialog and smooth narrative. This kind of control is exceptional in a first novel, and it points toward a very promising future for Kroll. The weakness of Land of Smiles is the thinness of plot and character development, yet the fact that the author can do so much with so little serves to highlight Kroll’s potential as an emerging writer. He is certainly one to watch as his experiences and stories grow into his already formidable skills.