Tag Archives: road trip

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev

“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.

18 grayIn 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

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Where Do We Go From Here? by Doris Dörrie

As part of Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature month, I chose Doris Dörrie’s novel: Where Do We Go From Here? Dörrie is one of my favourite German filmmakers, but unfortunately not all the films she’s made or the books she’s written are available in English. If you are at all familiar with her films, you know that her off-kilter work sometimes includes Buddhism (Cherry Blossoms, Enlightenment Guaranteed).  I should mention that Dörrie is a buddhist, so she’s certainly qualified to set the novel Where Do We Go From Here? in a Buddhist retreat. I’ll admit that I had some concerns that perhaps Dörrie’s beliefs might weaken the novel as veiled attempts at ideological conversion can ruin a novel. My concerns, however, were not realised, and Where Do We Go From Here? is a warm, witty, and wise look at the frailties of the human condition told through the eyes of a middle-aged man in crisis.

The man in crisis is Fred Kaufmann. He and his eminently organised, admirable, and practical wife Claudia owned a chain of vegetarian restaurants which they’ve now sold. The void in their lives left by the sudden departure of business responsibilities reveals that they’ve grown apart, and their marriage is on the rocks. Claudia turns to Buddhism,  he has a wild affair, and a weekend in London to repair their relationship serves only to reveal just how bleak things are. Meanwhile their only child Franka has announced that she’s in love with a Buddhist lama named Pelge. When the book begins, Fred leaves Munich with 16-year-old Franka in order to deliver her to a Buddhist retreat in the south of France. There Franka is supposed to reunite with Pelge before they leave for India together. The plan is for Fred to monitor Franka and bring her back to Munich when she comes to her senses. Nothing goes as planned….

Before Fred and Franka get to the retreat, they find themselves reluctantly picking up a depressed passenger, middle-aged hen-pecked-husband Norbert who decides he needs some time at the retreat too. While Fred is initially annoyed by this turn of events, he finds it somewhat reassuring to be confronted with a peer who’s in an even worse state of mind.  As it turns out, the retreat is packed with dozens of similar people–middle-aged lost souls, haunted by lost dreams, broken by failed careers & wrecked by bad marriages. Everyone is there for answers or some sort of peace of mind. There’s a strange other-world atmosphere at the retreat: there are those who are unhappy with the spartan accommodations, and others who appear to thrive on the hours of meditation, vow of silence and the meagreness of a rice diet. Fred is one of those who’s horrified by the sight of what’s in store:

I know we’ve come to the right place, because we’re already passing some of them.

They’re worse than my wildest dreams. Men with long, sparse hair in pale green tracksuit bottoms, women with massive buttocks in baggy lilac pants, their pendulous, braless boobs wobbling beneath faded pink T-shirts, children with fringes in front and page-boys behind. So these are the Enlightened Ones–or the candidates for Enlightenment.

Since Claudia has managed to effectively tune out Fred through her Buddhist meditation, he arrives at the retreat ready to loathe the suckers who’ve lined up to receive wisdom from Lama Tubten Rinpoche, author of How to Transform Happiness and Suffering into the Path of Enlightenment: How to be Happy When You Aren’t. Fred and Norbert are given a daily schedule and shown to a bleak room which holds three smelly foam mattresses. Here’s the schedule and the rules:

5:00 Getting-up time

5:30 Meditation

7:00 Breakfast

9:00 Lectures

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Working Meditation

18:00 Supper

19:30 Meditation

21:30 Lights Out

Please observe noble silence. We request you, during your retreat, to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sex.

You won’t find that too hard, I say to Norbert.

Not where three out of the four are concerned, he replies with a grin, and this time I get a chance to put an admonitory finger to my lips. Norbert gives a start and peers around anxiously, as if scared of being arrested on the spot.

To give away too much of what happens would spoil the experience for any potential readers, but I am going to include a quote which captures some of this wonderful novel’s flavour:

After fifteen minutes the monk strikes the gong once more. Everyone jumps up at once, chattering, and goes to get a bit more brown rice.

I get up too, intending to take my plate over to the plastic sinks, when the telephone in the kitchen rings and something quite extraordinary happens. They all come to a halt in mid-movement and fall silent as though transfixed, as though the sound has put them into a Sleeping Beauty trance. I see Franka standing there with a broom in her hand, more erect than I’ve seen her for years, because she usually keeps her head down so her hair hides her face.

Nobody seems to be going to the phone. I don’t know what to do. Embarrassed to be the only one in motion, I also halt with the plate in my hand. At children’s birthday parties in the old days we used to play a game in which we had to freeze suddenly, whatever we were doing at the time. If someone in the big tent were fucking–which god forbid–would they have to stop short and wait?

After the phone has rung seven or eight times, everyone abruptly comes back to life and carries on as if nothing had happened. I make a beeline for Franka.

You might at least have explained the rules, I say reproachfully. I feel like an absolute idiot. What the devil happened just now?

You’ll find out, Dad, she whispers.

This eternal whispering is getting on my nerves, I say loudly. She simply laughs and turns on her heels.

It seems we each have to wash up our own plate at the series of sinks. We dip it in the malodorous, lukewarm broth and hand it to our neighbour, who dips it in some slightly less malodorous broth and hands it on in turn. Meantime, we go to the end of the washing-up queue, take our plate, and dry it on an already sodden and not particularly clean drying-up cloth. The local hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.In my bagel cafés I’d have had the health inspector breathing down my neck a long time ago.

A bacterial paradise, I mutter to myself.

The story is loosely divided into thirds–with the trip to and from the retreat framing the time spent in France. The book follows Fred’s struggles with the retreat’s rules as he sneaks off for cigarettes and food, tries to meditate and mingles with people he feels he has nothing in common with. Over time Fred discovers that he shares more with the other guests than he initially realised, and alone with his thoughts he must confront the truth about his failed film director career and his marriage to Claudia. With piercing wit and a generous view of human nature Where Do We Go From Here?  explores how the unrealised dreams of youth reappear to haunt us, how we try to imbibe our lives with meaning as we try to adjust our lives to what they’ve become, and just how easy it is to blame others for the choices we’ve made.

Translated by John Brownjohn

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The Girl in The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t believe that Harold understands me, not really … we’re not on the same wavelength.”

British author, Beryl Bainbridge has been a great favourite for years, so when she died in 2010, I thought that all those wonderful books she’s written, all those hours of pleasure and entertainment were behind me. Permanently. Then came the news that there was another book–an unfinished manuscript. The fact that the book is unfinished raised some issues. While I knew that I would have to read The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, I was also concerned that the book might be a disappointment. I shouldn’t have worried.

Bainbridge’s friend and editor, Brendan King worked on the novel after the author’s death and calls it a “flawed masterpiece.”  It’s classic Bainbridge–replete with her signature mordant wit and brilliant observations of human nature. When writing the novel, Bainbridge mined a diary account of a three-week road trip she made across America in 1968. This real journey was from Washington to San Francisco while the fictional account found in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins in Baltimore and ends in Los Angeles. The book may seem to be the story of the adventures encountered on a road trip, but the real focus is the story of two startlingly dissimilar individuals who exposed to the same events, have vastly different reactions.

It’s 1968, and The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins with the arrival in Baltimore of a British girl called Rose. She’s flown to America to look for Dr. Wheeler, a mysterious man she met sixteen years before “in some remote coastal village in the north of England.” An enigmatic figure, Wheeler held a special significance for Rose, and while she’s suffered through some personal problems, Wheeler has somehow, in his absence, achieved the significance of a guru.

Rose, who works in a bank,  has very little money (she scrapes together $47), and really can’t afford the trip, but she’s subsidized in her quest by the equally mysterious, middle-aged Washington Harold–yet another man she met in Britain and with whom she’s been corresponding for over a year. Washington Harold has agreed to help Rose find Wheeler, and he provides a camper in which the ill-matched pair embark across America. Harold is no good samaritan, and he has his own murky reasons for seeking out Wheeler.

Most of the humour comes from the cultural encounters Rose experiences and also the frustrations Rose’s guide, Harold, undergoes through his forced confinement with Rose. Rose is a bizarre, fey creature who’s an intriguing combination of other-worldly innocence, which sometimes acts as a protective shield,  meshed with the sagacious acceptance and wisdom of the elderly. She relates meeting a man on the plane, and while we pick up bad vibes, Rose, typically, doesn’t:

Rose hadn’t liked the sound the aircraft made as it tore through the sky, and it must have made her breathe heavily because the man in the next seat kept urging her to relax and take hold of his hand. All her life people had been telling her what to do, even strangers, which was curious. He was quite a nice man, in spite of him confiding that his wife had bad breath, so she did as suggested. It didn’t help.

The encounter with the man on the plane is magnified when she talks about the incident with Harold:

“The plane was marvellous,” she gushed. “So much food they give you … all that drink. A gentleman who spoke candidly of his wife treated me to champagne … wasn’t that kind of him? He’d been away on business, first in Tokyo, then in Ireland.” Only the bit about the business trips was true: she hadn’t been bought the champagne.

Harold think Rose is impressed when she sees his home, but here’s her real reaction:

The bathroom was tiled and none too clean. There was a torn curtain of plastic slung sideways from the bath. The tub, similar to the one she used in Kentish Town, stood on cast-iron legs, old and rusted. Judging from the state of the toilet bowl, Americans didn’t know about Vim. Which was funny seeing the way Harold, the evening she had invited him in for a coffee, had rubbed his finger across her bedside table and commented on the grime.

 Harold chalks up Rose’s peculiarities to being British, notes her lack of personal hygiene, and  finally decides she is a “retard.” Rose stubbornly fights back against what she sees as Harold’s controlling personality with disconnected flights of fancy and platitudes such as “Too much cleaning makes us susceptible to germs.” The trip essentially becomes an oddly comic battle of wits and will between Harold and Rose. Even Harold’s friends consider him an inflexible bore and seem to prefer Rose.  While Harold, a mature man who holds the keys to the camper and the financial purse strings, may think he has the upper hand, ultimately Rose is the winner, and at one point, Harold is appalled to find that he’s beginning to sound like Rose. Rose’s brilliantly bizarre thought processes defy logic and counterbalance as they verve off into absurdity:

It’s normal, ” she replied, “for people who come from different backgrounds to find it difficult to get on. It’s because we’re programmed by the people who brought us up.”

It was disconcerting the way she often came out with an intelligent observation, and irritating when, as always, she quickly ruined it, suggesting that if they were squirrels, the very first ones without parents, knowing how to find nuts would be a matter of luck, not inheritance. “If we didn’t see our mothers scrabbling beneath a pine tree, how could we know what to do?” she enquired absurdly.

Bainbridge creates a kaleidoscope of 60s America culture seen through Rose’s eyes–race problems, riots, the Vietnam war, and even a bank robbery take place as Rose and Harold drive across America in Harold’s camper van. Dr. Wheeler always seems one step ahead, and since he’s rumoured to be part of Kennedy’s election team, Rose and Harold head towards Los Angeles and a date with history…

For those who’ve never read a Beryl Bainbridge novel, if you’re a fan of Muriel Spark, then chances are that you will also enjoy Bainbridge.  

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Europa Editions

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A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe

A few weeks ago, I entered a book-give-away contest at Kevin’s blog, and to my astonishment, I won. Of the three books on offer, I grabbed A Cold Night for Alligators by first-time author, Canadian Nick Crowe. Some reviewers compared the book to the work of Carl Hiaasen. I can’t comment on that as I’ve never read any, but I can say that there’s a touch of Christopher Moore  and even Bill Fitzhugh. Chances are that if you like those writers, you’ll enjoy Crowe’s novel. So what is A Cold Night for Alligators? It’s part road trip, part buddy novel, and part mystery. Oh and part innocent Canadian abroad.

The novel’s narrator is Jasper, a twenty-six-year-old man who lives and fights with his girlfriend Kim in the house that used to belong to his parents. Jasper’s father is dead, his mother is in a nursing home, and Jasper’s only brother, Coleman disappeared one night 10 years earlier. Coleman began exhibiting mental problems during his teens and was building a spaceship in the back garden right before he disappeared. Coleman’s disappearance has nagged at Jasper for years as he feels partially responsible.

The novel starts off very strongly with an earnest and believable first person narration from  Jasper as he stands on the subway station on a Friday night waiting to catch the train home while listening to his workmate, Phil moaning about his woes:

It had been another riveting day at the office. I spent most of the day aimlessly searching the internet, reading in turn about Scrotum Smasher, a punk rock band from Northern Ontario who released one classic record in 1986 then promptly disbanded, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an affliction caused by a slow-moving virus that destroys memory.

Ok, so we’ve established that Jasper is a slacker, and for that, I liked this open-minded, kind character very much. While Jasper listens with one ear, he’s thinking about his upcoming weekend and the inevitable arguments he’ll have with his long-term girlfriend, Kim. But those arguments never happen. Fate intervenes in the form of a loony and when Jasper wakes up from a coma 7 months later his life has changed. Not only is he horribly injured but his girlfriend has moved on and now lives with her new man, Donny …  in Jasper’s house.

Jasper, is a little uncomfortable (nothing more) with his girlfriend finding a new man while he’s in a coma. That, of course, would be bad enough, but that girlfriend ex “party-girl extraordinaire” now  “God-botherer” has moved her new man into Jasper’s parents’ home. She seems to be pushing the envelope of decent behaviour, and this also creates a very awkward situation when Jasper comes out of the coma. Again, Jasper seems to roll with it–it’s just not in his nature to hold a grudge or be angry. For these reasons, Jasper’s character is a little too good at times ( he notes that Donny “was being pretty good about the whole thing” and that illustrates how Jasper misses the point at several times throughout the story), but that seems to be the author’s intention.

Jasper has problems adjusting back to his life, but two things happen: he receives a phone call on his birthday from the Fort Myers area of Florida, and while no one speaks on the other end, Jasper is convinced the anonymous caller is his long-lost brother Coleman. Jasper and Coleman spent many childhood summers in Florida, and both boys grew up with a “lifelong love of the Sunshine State.” But then there’s a second phone call–this time from a Florida sheriff who says that a homeless man gave him this number. Jasper is first intrigued and then takes a fishing trip down to Florida with Donny and his hapless, burping friend, Duane (read: shit magnet) to see if he can trace Coleman.

The road trip is peppered with bizarre characters, but that’s nothing to what awaits them in Florida. Here’s Jasper arriving at Aunt Val’s isolated ramshackle place which she shares with Rolly Lee–former front man for the Fort Myers band General Gator:

When we pulled in at the edge of the open area and parked the truck, I noticed a group of men behind the barn. An overweight man with a massively distended bare stomach and matchstick legs was throwing beer bottles while a rough, smoke-smeared artillery of men were taking aim and firing with slingshots and pellet guns. As we got out of the truck, I heard one pop and shatter. There was a chorus of whoops and cheers. I made a mental note that if I had to go looking for an extra truck part, not to do it barefoot.

“Jesus Christ,”  Duane said, “your uncle in a fucking militia or something? This is like Waco.”

Donny nodded. His mouth agape. “He really knows how to throw a cookout. There must be sixty people here.” Another ATV blazed into sight from the mud road and did a donut. Two men got off, beers already uncapped.

“Go man go,” Duane shouted. They nodded in our direction and spat as they went past.

A Cold Night for Alligators could be an incredibly dark novel if it were written from a different angle. But with Crowe’s gentle humour and quirky characters–all seen through Jasper’s wondering eyes–the novel is instead an amusing, light read. The plot sagged a bit in the middle and I had problems with the naiveté of one character whose name I can’t mention without giving away too much.

Can’t help but wonder how Floridians would see the book, but from my perspective, Crowe captured swamp culture perfectly.  It’s a world of its own. Try going off the beaten track in Florida (I’m not talking about the tourist traps) and see what you find. I’ve seen Water Moccasins ribboning through brackish water, alligators deceptively lazy at the side of the swamp, and on one dark starless night I walked through a field while the air was thick with thousands of shimmering fireflies. This geographical region is unique and mysterious. It’s one of the areas that leaves an imprint on the people who live there, and Nick Crowe captured my memories of the place perfectly.

Thanks Kevin!

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