What would you do if you only had a few years to live?
Would you travel and visit the great wonders of the world? Would you spend as much time as possible with your family? Or would you live your life normally until you couldn’t?
What about moving to Thailand to enjoy your last dying days?
Moving to Thailand is not as crazy as it sounds. Many people make major life changes after finding out they have a terminal illness. Thailand has a cheap cost of living, warm climate, quality health care, and of course nightlife along with easy to find relationships – all factors someone who is terminally ill can benefit from.
Lawson Banks, the main character in Erich R. Sysak’s novel, Stage IV, moves to Thailand for all of those reasons after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Banks uses geographic arbitrage to make his money go further. He plans to enjoy life on the beach in paradise until he dies. Except he doesn’t die fast enough for the greedy people who are waiting to profit from his death.
If you are wondering what viatication is you are not alone. Surprisingly, it is the perfectly legal practice of a terminally ill person selling their life insurance policy for less than its future value. Both the terminally ill person and the ‘investor’ can benefit. The terminally ill person gets cash up front to spend while they are alive and the buyer gets the full value of the policy when the person dies.
After being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, Banks is approached by a group of friends who invest in such policies. They offer him $400,000 cash or half of his policy’s payout value. Banks realizes his money will go a lot further in Thailand, so he accepts their offer and quickly makes the beach his home.
While not exactly calculating his annual withdrawal using the 4% rule, Banks does follow the basic principles of FIRE – Financially Independent / Retire Early while trying to make his money last as long as possible.
Interestingly, as an aside, the US has a long history of profiting from death. It is common practice for corporations in the US to buy life insurance policies on their employees. Instead of the policy being a benefit for the employee, the employee’s family gets nothing if their loved one dies. The corporation makes itself the beneficiary. In fact, these policies often continue after the employee leaves the company, which means many corporations receive money when their former employees die.
A Sick Health Care System
Once in Thailand, Banks takes advantage of the cheap, but high-quality medical care. He is able to get the medicine he needs by mail order from India for a fraction of the $8,000 per dose it costs in the US. With good medical care and access to the medicine he needs, he not only doesn’t die, his health starts improving.
That reminds me of a scene in Michael Moore’s movie Sicko when he takes a group of chronically sick Americans to Cuba for medical treatment. Some of them are so overwhelmed when they see how cheap their medicine is that they start crying. The US has by far the highest drug prices in the world and drug companies have been making record profits for years. Politicians only started caring when Pharma-Bro Martin Shkreli increased the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000% overnight for no reason.
Stage IV highlights how cruel the pay-or-die US medical system can be and how the rest of the world is much more sympathetic and compassionate.
The Plot Thickens
Banks settles into a beach house, finds a lovely Thai girl named Benz who takes good care of him, and starts enjoying life. Everything would be perfect except people keep trying to kill him. At first, he suspects Benz. He’s not sure if she’s part of a conspiracy, or if she’s doing it to keep his money for herself. At the same time, he loves her and is sure she loves him, so he stays with her.
Benz has her own dilemma. She is stuck between her family, a Thai colonel, and her love for Banks. She tries to keep everyone happy and is unable to say no to anyone’s demands, just like many Thai girls in real life.
Richie Keller, part of the group who invested in Bank’s insurance policy, travels to Thailand to finish the job. The group has been waiting for years for their payout, and after losing money on one of their other investments they need Banks to die quickly. Keller leads you through the Thai underworld as he tries to hire a hit-man to kill Banks.
Stage IV is a wonderful journey through the real-life decisions of everyday people who are struggling with serious problems. It is easy to connect with Banks while he fights to stay alive in Thailand. Expats can definitely relate to the pressure Benz is under as she tries to please everyone. The unforgivable Thai underworld adds mystery and danger. Taken together, I enjoyed reading Stage IV.
I’ve never been a big fan of Thai-expat fiction, mainly because most plots consist of a downward spiral into debauchery. Stage IV does have some steamy scenes, but they are done in good taste and Banks quickly realizes how shallow that lifestyle is and how much he loves Benz.
Most expat fiction promotes stereotypes that short-term tourists want to read about. Erich Sysak, on the other hand, is really talented at conveying the subtle nuances of life in Thailand that expats yearn for someone else to recognize, but at the same time, want to feel special that they’re the only one who notices it. Indeed, there were few instances while reading Stage IV where I thought I had made a big leap in understanding a covert aspect Thai culture, only to find Sysak also detected it. At least he thought it was peculiar enough to write about.
Here are a few passages I highlighted while reading Stage IV:
“Was he here in Thailand to live as long as he could or was he here to live out adolescent fantasies? … His cell phone rang twenty times a day with unrecognizable numbers. He would pretend to know the sweet, young voice on the other end, but they knew the truth, that he hardly knew or cared who she was. … with their small, delicious bodies came endless requests for money …”
“But most of all he was lonely. He had many different women all week, but he knew it was wrong. At his age it was ridiculous to have a twenty-six-year-old girlfriend. They had nothing to discuss, nothing to share. He didn’t want to be alone, but he tossed his cell phone into the ocean and felt the weight come off his body. The problem wasn’t bargirls or age, he’d decided, but himself. He wanted a real connection with a woman. But most of all, he’d sacrificed his son’s financial future for his own, and the way he was living was such an ugly way to spend that money. Benz came back to the living room…”
“He didn’t understand why it was a thousand times cheaper in Southeast Asia … But when he remembered how much the price of that drug wrecked people’s lives in America, the greed, the plain ugliness, astonished him. If only people in America knew how much different and better things were in the rest of the world. It was a lie that the quality wasn’t the same, or that the drug cost so much because it cost so much to do research. From Lawson’s perspective it simply looked like greed, evil basic greed.”
“The damned drugs were still expensive, and the people, the businesses selling them were still getting rich, but here on the other side of the world he could get his hands on what he needed without the pain and unbelievable shame of giving up absolutely everything he owned. He didn’t have to wrangle with corrupt insurance companies or play games over incomprehensible rules and ridiculously complicated forms. No one tried to surprise him with bureaucratic or legal tricks. He was liberated from the burden of having to deal with low-paid workers loyal to monstrous corporations for no good reason. Living as an expat was a kind of beautiful freedom he’d never thought was possible. Wasn’t America supposed to be free? But it wasn’t. It simply wasn’t true.”
Other Books By Erich R. Sysak
I have also read The Deserted Country which is a collection of short stories written when Sysak first became an expat. Some stories are so good they leave you wanting more and should be turned into books of their own. I particularly liked the first one that describes his teaching job at a university in Thailand, and the story about a girl in Phuket who turns out to be more than her boyfriend first thought. Erich Sysak has also written Water Heart and Dog Catcher.