“Nine days without my wife and I score a drunk Pamela Anderson.”
Ok, so here’s the scenario:
You’re a young Bulgarian man living in California. You once wanted to be a photographer but settled for a lucrative job in the pharmaceutical industry. After your wife, Stella, dumps you, you go down to Tijuana on a bender. There in a drunken haze, you get mixed up with some thugs and through a chain of circumstance, you end up with a huge bag of marijuana. Do you:
a) turn it in to the cops
b) have a big party and invite all your friends
c) drop it off at the Salvation Army donation box
d) try and sell it.
Well if you’re Zachary, the narrator of Bulgarian author, Zachary Karabashliev’s novel, 18% Gray, you decide, somewhat precipitously on the latter option. Of course there are a ton of problems when it comes to selling somewhere in the region of 50-70 lbs of marijuana, and since Zach knows nothing about how to sell it and has no contacts to help, he decides to drive from California to his friend Danny in New York, taking the huge bag of purloined marijuana along in the car. For anyone who’s driven across state lines, then you know that this is not the best plan in the world, but then again Zach isn’t exactly thinking straight since Stella left.
In many ways this is a road trip novel. As Zach packs up Stella’s abandoned convertible with the marijuana and an adequate supply of indispensable Toblerone, he careens from one disaster and misadventure to another including a less-than-thrilling casual sex encounter and a clash with opportunistic car thieves as he passes through drab rural towns, stops at greasy spoon diners, isolated gas stations, and sleeps in bleak cheap hotel rooms. Along the way he buys an ancient Nikon camera and captures amazing images of the American landscape, and as he heads East, he reminisces about his past in Bulgaria, his relationship with Stella, and mulls over exactly what went wrong.
18% Gray (which is a reference to photography btw) is a fictional version of a Jim Jarmusch film. Narrator Zach combines the naiveté of the non-American adrift in the bizarre corners of the American social landscape with the sort of spot-on observations made by a foreigner who interprets the culture with a unique perspective:
At seven I’m in the car because I have to leave L.A. before the traffic really thickens. I take I-10 East. The sun is already up and glinting on the backs of the cars in front of me. I try to find a radio station that doesn’t irritate me. I know that every ten or fifteen minutes I’ll have to deal with the next attack of ads–something I have never learned to ignore after all these years in America. Most likely I never will. The locals handle this as if they have an implanted chip that switches their attention on and off during commercial breaks. Maybe this mechanism is formed in the first early years of television watching. I’m missing the “first seven” in this respect. I grew up somewhere else, with a different kind of television. There–I remember– we had similar reactions to the communist propaganda, which, just like the commercials here, kept the system going.
As Zach heads East, layers from his past are stripped away, and we learn how Zach and Stella met in Bulgaria, their exodus to America, and how they adjusted to a whole new vista of materialistic temptations.
Years ago, I was in a book shop in Santa Monica, which some of you may know is a mecca of sorts for British ex-pats like me. There while perusing the shelves, I overheard a conversation between other British ex-pats who were exchanging thoughts about living in America. One man noted that he fell into the “pitfalls” of the culture without thinking much about it. He said he’d ”gone with the flow” and racked up huge debts to match a lifestyle he really couldn’t afford. Not that this behavior is exclusively American by any means, but the man’s point was that he felt adrift in a foreign culture and made bad choices which resulted in painful experiences before he found himself reevaluating just how he wanted to live in his newly-adopted culture. This overheard conversation came back to mind as I read the novel. As an ex-pat, I appreciated 18% Gray’s fresh and insightful view of American culture as seen through a foreigner’s eyes. When Zach lands in America, all things seem possible, and then he shifts his dream, opting for material gain over every other consideration. Not so Stella. This is, in essence, the experience of ever new-comer to a foreign land. You have to decide how you will adapt, what you will adopt, and what you will absolutely reject. For some, I think, it’s easier than for others. Zach initially loses himself with his new (forged) American identity, and it’s on the symbolic journey East that Zach reconnects with the man he used to be.
I love American roads at night. The prairie outside is dark and cold. The American West. Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a part of this. But why? Is it possible that I had simply been charmed by the idea of the West, the West of absolute, raw freedom? I grew up with my grandparents’ fairy tales, with innumerable stories of our own national heroes–my mom read me to sleep every night.
I now realize that my American West was not a geographical place, but a sacred territory in my dreams. Perhaps everybody has their own Wild west. From a very young age, I knew with certainty that one day I would live in mine. I’d caress the yellow prairie grass and the wind would kiss my face. When did I lose all that? How did I manage to desecrate my West by replacing it with the plastic version of what I’ve been living in for the last few years of my life?
California, of course. The end came with California.
Review copy. Translated by Angela Rodel