Fred Yager’s, The Asian Queen (Hannacroix Creek Books, 195 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a delightful homage to the book and classic Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn film, The African Queen. Yager, a poet and novelist, served in the U.S. Navy, including an eighteen-month tour of duty as an embedded journalist and designated war correspondent in the Vietnam War.
The novel is set in 1977 with Monty Tipton living aboard his 32-foot refurbished Navy PBR while he motors up and down the rivers of Vietnam and its neighboring countries. Tipton’s a veteran of the Vietnam War who has decided to stay in Southeast Asia. His boat has been his home for the last eight of his 32 years. He has a reputation for being a loner with a weakness for booze and young Thai girls.
Tipton has been making his living—enough to keep him in fuel and cans of Foster’s beer—by smuggling Cambodians out of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge at a hundred bucks a head. It’s becoming increasingly dangerous, though, and Tipton tells himself that he might just make one last trip into Cambodia.
He typically takes his human cargo to a refugee camp in Thailand. A young woman, Esther Brafford, has recently begun working at the camp, which is sponsored by the U.N. Refugee Commission. She would like to go into Cambodia and treat people. She’s also heard of atrocities on a mass scale being carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Since the U.N. and the U.S. government seem to be ignoring the atrocities, she wants to bring back photographic evidence that would push the Western world to step in.
Esther recruits our reluctant, antihero to take her into Cambodia by telling him she knows the location of some buried treasure. After a couple of days on their way to a country that Tipton says “smells like death,” Esther learns that the boat’s engine is on its last legs and her companion typically drinks ten beers a day, then has to drink Jack Daniels at night to stave off nightmares of the war.
They dodge mines, fend off frightening water rats, and evade gunboat blockades. The two are constantly bickering. She calls him a “disgusting degenerate alcoholic.” He counters with: “Of all the boats in the Delta, why’d she have to come aboard mine?”
Writing an homage to a classic work is not as easy as you might think. You don’t just copy the work; you tell a similar, recognizable tale while maintaining the spirit of the original one. Fred Yeager has done that—and more—and in the process has created a love letter to the original film.