Monday, January 28, 2019

Book Review: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
It's surprising that more people have not heard of Ryszard Kapuscinski. That's not to suggest that his books and essays are not well known. But he was such a skilled journalist and writer that he should be more widely read and celebrated.

Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who arrived in Africa in the late 1950s to chronicle the political upheavals in numerous countries as colonialism started to unravel. Writing for Poland's state news agency, he would continue to visit Africa for extended periods and write about the invincible dysfunction in many of of the continent's most troubled locations for almost half a century. The Shadow of the Sun is a collection of his reportage and essays about Africa that span those nearly 50 years.

Translated from Polish, Kapuscinski's writing is at turns sparse, reflective and poetic. His detailed descriptions and shrewd insights highlight him as a keen observer capable of distilling the convoluted machinations of revolution and war into easy-to-follow accounts. The Shadow of the Sun is a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn about the culture and history of African countries. Or simply for anyone who enjoys beautifully written articles ('articles' is somehow too pedestrian a word--perhaps 'timeless accounts') about distant lands.

Because Kapuscinski was a journalist who wrote mainly about the politics of the places he visited, he isn't known as a travel writer. Yet his ability to vividly evoke a sense of place, bring characters to life, explain cultural habits and provide succinct, accurate historical background make his writing a must read for every novice travel writer. And, in fact, a number of the pieces in the book could qualify as travel writing, although some of them are preludes to subsequent pieces that focus on political strife.

Early on, Kapuscinski provides some unwitting advice to anyone who wants some quick insight into a place they are visiting:
In the morning I bought the local newspaper, Ashanti Pioneer, and set out in search of its editorial offices. Experience teaches that one can learn more passing an hour in such an office than in a week of walking around to see various institutions and notables. And so it was this time.
Readers who have traveled or lived in Africa, or in any third world country, will nod their heads in agreement at many of the observations. Here, Kapuscinski writes about a mini-bus driver and departure schedules:
"What do you mean, 'when'?" the astonished driver will reply. "It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up."
And in a related passage, he writes about punctuality in general:
In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon, but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, "When will the meeting take place?" makes no sense. You know the answer: "It will take place when people come."
Describing a bout of malaria:
The malaria attack is not merely painful, but like every pain also a mystical experience. We enter a realm about which a moment ago we knew nothing, though it now turns out that it had existed in us all the while, finally capturing and incorporating us: we discover within ourselves icy crevasses, chasms, and abysses, whose presence fills us with suffering and fear.
Probably the most prescient discussion about life in third world countries comes when  Kapuscinski relays the discussion he has with an Englishman in Ethiopia. The man talks about the culture of criticism that exists in Europe and laments the hypersensitivity of many people in Africa.
They consider all criticism to be a malevolent attack, a sign of discrimination, of racism, etc. Representatives of these cultures treat criticism as a personal insult, as a deliberate attempt to humiliate them, as a form of sadism even. If you tell them that the city is dirty, they treat this as if you said that they were dirty themselves, had dirty ears, or dirty nails. Instead of being self-critical, they are full of countless grudges, complexes, envies, peeves, manias. The effect of all this is that they are culturally, permanently, structurally incapable of progress, incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform and evolve.
I've lived a good portion of my adult life in a third world country, and the above quoted passage perfectly sums up people's attitudes to criticism in this part of the world. Multiply that mentality times a thousand if an outsider dares to offer even mild criticism about his adopted home. I think this difference is also evident in humour. In Europe and North America, humour often revolves around mocking and ridiculing people with power. Here, humour is slapstick, men dressing up as women, and for the real connoisseurs, midgets.

Among Kapuscinski's detailed accounts of war and strife, the lengthy reportage on Rwanda and Liberia struck me as the most informative and memorable. Regarding the decades-old conflict in Rwanda that flared into holocaust numerous times, Kapuscinski evokes the physical setting, simply and eloquently describes the history and players and laments the hopelessness of it all.

The chapter about Liberia also provides some good history and describes the kind of surreal events that seem so commonplace in Africa. Kapuscinski reports on the fall of Liberian president, Samuel Doe in 1990. One of his former associates, Prince Johnson, puts together his own army and captures Doe. Johnson's followers videotape the macabre scene that plays out and Kapuscinski details the events that unfold in the video:
We see Johnson sitting and drinking beer. A woman stands next to him, fanning him and wiping the sweat from his brow. On the floor sits a bound Doe, dripping with blood. His face is so battered you barely see his eyes.
...
But Johnson just yells at Doe in a local creole dialect. It is impossible to understand most of what he says, except for one thing: he demands that Doe tell him his bank account number. Whenever a dictator is seized in Africa, the entire ensuing inquisition, the beatings, the tortures, will inevitably revolve around one thing: the number of his private bank account.
And sure enough, you can find the gruesome footage posted on YouTube (warning: not for the faint of heart).

A correspondent posted overseas in the same geographical region for many decades is almost a thing of the past. That's too bad, because the quality of insights and well-written accounts of people, their cultures and their political dramas that appear in The Shadow of the Sun is also becoming a relic of a bygone era.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Freak's Own: 9—Confirmation Bias

Freak's Own: 9

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Book Review: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?
Back in 2008 when Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism was published, it had a few hooks that ensured instant publicity. The first was the promise of exposing the life of a Lonely Planet guide-book writer on the road. The second was a whole lot of shameless behaviour depicted in the book, which was guaranteed to stoke one of the greatest of human past-times; judging other people. But most readers who make their way through the book are bound to ask the question: can someone who so casually discusses his corner-cutting, lying and criminal behaviour in pursuit of fulfilling his contract with Lonely Planet be trusted about anything he writes? Another question: does it really matter?

When the first promotional interviews and other pre-release publicity suggested that author Thomas Kohnstamm was not the only one of their writers spewing major amounts of horseshit regarding the locations he visited and the supposed research he conducted, Lonely Planet dutifully responded right on cue with unctuous, high-minded equivocating. What a shocker. You pay first-time writers meagre wages, impose unrealistic deadlines and provide little oversight, and the result is less than ethical behaviour. Instead of visiting every town and scouting out all the relevant hotels, restaurants and bars at every price point, some of the travelling facility inspectors re-write reviews from past editions, crib information online, pick other travellers' brains, and on occasion, make shit up.

Only the very naive cling to the belief travel guide-book writers have dream jobs. Of course, I have no problem believing that many of them have carved out a nice little niche for themselves. They've developed their own system for scoping out a new location and likely have little problem meeting deadlines and staying within their budgets. Perhaps most of them take a few shortcuts on occasion, while others play it as straight as they can. They make connections, write for various publications and one day they move on to another job within the industry. Or they do what they should have done in the first place; write their own travel book. Interestingly, Kohnstamm continued writing for Lonely Planet for years after the initial trip to Brazil, which is the focus of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. He provides no indication about whether he carried on with his "makin' up shit" approach to guide-book writing in those other locations.

As for the authenticity of many of the tales in the book--who can really say? However, I came to the conclusion that much of what Kohnstamm writes is embellished a great deal. And I am fairly confident that a number of events are undiluted horseshit of the highest grade. Casually deciding to become a drug dealer in a foreign country? Perhaps, but the emotions (and lack of) and the details he discusses in relation to that decision and the subsequent developments ring dead false to me. He probably thought he was quite clever in relating the entire apocryphal tale in such a way that he could later deny having done anything of the sort if anyone were to call him on it.

The passages regarding his escapades with various women in Brazil well may be true. Anyone who has done any amount of independent travelling knows that a certain kind of hedonistic experience can be had by just about anyone on the backpackers' circuit. However, many of the anecdotes about women sound as if they were written after polling members of the pick-up artist community regarding their most cringe-worthy fantasies. Bedding beautiful women and then developing an instant need to flee: check. Same women become enraged and try to cheat him financially only to have him best them in the end regarding money: check. Walking in on sleeping women whose breasts or other body parts are exposed, and then staring open-mouthed for a few creepy minutes: check. At least two examples of each of these categories appear in the book.

Of course, accurately reported incidents will also reflect patterns and tendencies, so perhaps everything regarding his interactions with women are only an insight into Kohnstamm's character. Come to think of it, there really are very few females Kohnstamm encounters about whom readers learn much besides what they look like and whether they are interested in casual sex. Oh, there is a graphic, painfully detailed scene in which a local Brazilian woman is brutally assaulted.

The male characters Kohnstamm chooses to highlight generally fall into male-fantasy territory as well. Drug fiends, drug dealers and the requisite James Bond character: a hard-case Israeli who dislocates the shoulder of a young pickpocket, casually discusses his mercenary past and dispatches with armed police in another incident that also involves Kohnstamm and which has the air of a comic-book fantasy about it.

The timeline of events is just a bit too pat as well; the good-natured first attempt at trying to visit all the destinations on the itinerary provided by Lonely Planet, and then the revelation (that was actually percolating all along) sparked by the jaded hotel owner who's hip to Kohnstamm's position as a guide-book writer.

I imagine that Kohnstamm wrote the book and realized that it just didn't quite have the appeal he had originally hoped. So he did some re-writing and packed it full of characters and narrative devices to spice it up. And what do you know? Here I am discussing many of those incidents he likely fabricated and in the process I'm providing validation for all the non-fiction writing fabulists out there. However, it might not have been such a bad thing as the sections of the book which take place in New York are dull as ditch-water and apparently involve no bullshit whatsoever. In his attempts to show how soul-destroying his existence in New York was before he accepted the job with Lonely Planet, he forgets that to accurately recreate such a reality is to put readers to sleep. Unfortunately, the sections that take place in New York make up at least 25% of the book.

If pressed about the liberal dollops of horseshit that found their way into his book, I have no doubt Kohnstamm would respond with some kind of clever, hipster rationalization that suggested he was angling for a certain effect and only the naive literalist would take everything he wrote seriously. Of course, most readers are willing to accept some exaggerations and the reorganizing of events in time to create a more entertaining book.

Regardless, I did find it to be quite a fast-paced, enjoyable read. On the other hand, I also liked many of the least sensational passages in which he writes about rolling into a new town and getting his bearings. Some of the minutiae related to actually doing his job as a guide-book writer were interesting as well. In this passage, he details some of the things he has to keep in mind when gathering information:
Lonely Planet would like 20 percent of the coverage going to budget, 60 percent to midrange, and 20 percent to top-end. I also need to keep in mind what a solo female traveler would want, what a disabled traveler would want, what a gay/lesbian /bisexual/transgender traveler would want, what a vegetarian or vegan would want, and I need to be sensitive to not write with a particularly American point of view. The company does not think that this will dilute the content or voice of the book.
I did a fair amount of backpacking many years ago and many of the emotions he experiences and the litany of different characters and situations really brought back some good memories. He riffs on the hypocrisy and absurdity of the constant search for pristine locations which become the new hot destination for backpackers only to evolve into over-developed cesspools full of angry, scheming locals and rich, sneering tourists.

Kohnstamm writes in a simple, straightforward way and avoids any attempts at literary flourishes. He appreciates the importance of scenes and characters in non-fiction writing and keeps the action moving along quite nicely for the most part. Unfortunately, the book is poorly edited. Not to the point of being rammed full of mistakes. But there are enough mistakes (typos, grammar mistakes, incorrect word usage when the word's homophone should have been used, to name a few) to make it annoying for anyone who expects a book to be well edited. In addition, Kohnstamm has some annoying writing habits, as almost every writer does. For example, one of his writing tics is to use "off of" when "off" alone would suffice (and would read much better).

If you want a relatively entertaining, quick read that chronicles some of the challenges of a travel guide-book writer mixed with tales of debauchery, you could do worse. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? was published almost 10 years ago. For a first-time author, the book seemed to do quite well. Yet, since then, nothing more from Kohnstamm. Perhaps the intake of illegal drugs and alcohol he describes in the book got the better of him. Or maybe he's turned to his real calling--fiction writing.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Review: Wild Coast by John Gimlette

Wild Coast
In Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, John Gimlette recounts three months spent travelling in Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. He travels extensively, interacts with many of the locals and provides historical background on the region.

It quickly becomes clear that potted histories will make up a large part of the book. Unfortunately, those are the least engaging passages (often stretching to numerous pages at a time). I often found my eyes glazing over as he detailed yet another instance of slaughter, uprising or unjust treatment of slaves. It's like the difference between wading through dry backstory and lively, engaging scenes when reading a novel.

At some point in writing the book, I believe Gimlette sensed this potential shortcoming as well, and so he utilizes some different methods in an attempt to spice up the narratives. For example, he occasionally switches to present tense and imagines what a particular historical figure may have experienced in certain situations instead of relying on dry summary. Some readers may find these sections enjoyable, but I just wasn't drawn into many of the stories.

In one chapter, Gimlette ventures to the location where the American preacher/cult leader Jim Jones and his followers set up the notorious Jonestown in the middle of the jungle. I've read a very good book about Jones and the build-up to the mass suicide/slaughter of over 900 people in 1978, which makes the retelling here particularly watered down and ineffective.

Of course, interspersed throughout the history lessons are descriptions of the places as they exist today. Gimlette provides contrasts to the way things were, and discusses the ways in which the past has shaped the present. Those passages can be quite entertaining.

Some annoyances crop up in Gimlette's writing. Like many good writers, he seems to forget, at times, about the importance of the good old-fashioned transition. Transitions between sentences, and between paragraphs. In this passage, he tells us about an important house in Georgetown. Yet, while I was reading, I wasn't quite sure about the details. Was it abandoned? Or was it a historical site preserved for tourists? If I had to bet, I'd go with the latter. But why not just bring the reader up to speed? If not at the beginning of the passage when he too is puzzled at the status of the house, at least clarify things after the fact.
The Red House was  grand and yet spartan, and covered in bristly crimson shingles. At first I though it was abandoned: the shutters were bolted, and the grass grew long in the yard. But then I noticed that the front door was open, and so I went inside.
...
After a while an Indian appeared.
It's never quite made clear who this Indian is.

Another related flaw: assumptions about how easily readers will lock onto his descriptions and actually know what the hell he is talking about. In this passage, Gimlette describes the architecture in Georgetown. No logical, realistic image rose up in my mind based on his description:
In a city of lacy buildings, this was the laciest of all. From the outside, it reminded me of a wedding dress, all spotlessly white and frilly.
Other times, the lack of information seems to be the result of poor editing. For example, here he writes about Jim Jones:
By 1963 he's head of the human rights commission, and his disciples assume a new name, the People's Temple Full Gospel Church.
Yet in the above sentence, I have no idea which particular "human rights commission" he is referring to.

A number of times, he mentions people with "blue" hair. I assume he means hair that is so black that it has a slight blue tinge. Maybe I'm being a stickler, but I would guess more than a few rubes reading the book would be left scratching their heads. More appropriate would be to explain that effect the first time he comments on "blue" hair and then in subsequent mentions it would be clear to everyone.

Similarly, more than a few times he uses metaphors that left me a bit perplexed. There's a fine line between using tired old metaphors and crafting good, original metaphors that are effective and easily understood.

Finally, while many of the here-and-now passages in the book were quite enjoyable to read, a certain sameness to many of the characters detracted from the believability. To be sure, he interacts with a wide variety of people from the towns and the countryside, from different ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. But inevitably they are almost all incredibly, nice people, or at the very least, honourable and genuine. Most of them are cast in the "unforgettable character" mold that stretches belief. I suppose it would be hard to get a glimpse of people's dark side in such a relatively short time, but still, some nuance would have been nice. It's not surprising then, that Gimlette offers up the occasional observation that can be classified as faux incredulity. In short, these passages say, it's hard to comprehend that such nice people should hail from countries that have undergone such turmoil.

Of course, Gimlette can write very well. In this short description, he highlights his literary skills and unwittingly includes a good criticism of his own writing:
As he talked he smoked, and his hands swooped around making vapour trails, like a dogfight in front of his face. He was thrillingly articulate but not always easy to follow.
Here is another paragraph in which he demonstrates his ability to describe settings in a vivid and evocative manner:
Eventually, at dusk, we reached the Burro-Burro River. It was like a streak of blackened glass sliding away, off through the trees. There, high on a bluff, we slung our hammocks and ate some chunks of catfish. It tasted of trout with an extra dollop of pond. Then we opened some rum, settled in our hammocks and waited for the show to begin.
Yet just as often there is an awkward turn of phrase or a built-in assumption that necessitates re-reading. For example:
She was round and exuberant, had a tattoo on her face and was dressed in a Guyanese flag. 
More explanation required. It sounds interesting. Is it an actual flag? If so, how is it fashioned into a garment? Or is it a t-shirt with an image of the flag on it? Or, is he trying to suggest that this woman is extremely proud of her country? The subsequent paragraphs don't seem to suggest that.

I have no doubt that many readers will enjoy Wild Coast. The sections which include histories of the places Gimlette visits may appeal to them a great deal. For me, the result was a book which I was never quite eager to return to after I started reading it. Also, as mentioned, the flaws in his writing became tiresome. At least one good re-write and some more editing would have produced a far better book. I believe that Gimlette saw some amazing things and was impressed by the incredible scenery and bloody history during his three-month journey. Unfortunately, because of his emphasis on the past and the shortcomings in his writing, I was never able to fully share his enthusiasm.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Freak's Own: 8

Freak's Own: 8

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On book cover
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts, details the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Shilts focuses on a number of different groups and highlights their negligence in providing the funding to research the disease and their shameless indifference and lack of urgency in alerting people to the dangers of the disease. Specifically, Shilts looks at politicians, the media, the scientific community, the blood industry and the people who were affected most by AIDS (gay men, intravenous drug users, and haemophiliacs and other blood transfusion recipients).

This book is written in the reportage style (appropriate, as Shilts was a reporter) that results in, what I believe, is the type of non-fiction book that most people find the most entertaining and readable. In other words, real-life characters are developed, situations and dialogue are recreated, and tension is built up, despite the fact that the majority of readers know, in general, how things play out in the tragic saga of the AIDS epidemic. Shilts made no attempt to be objective. He editorializes heavily, or as some like to call it, offers up the "muckraking" style of reportage. His blunt assessments and judgmental asides are quite enjoyable most of the time. And the method gains credibility by the fact that he lambastes everyone with (almost) equal vigour.

Shilts was a gay man and lived and worked in San Francisco as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. But, in And the Band Played On, he does not hesitate to go after many in the gay community for their stubborn refusal to alter their behaviour as details of how AIDS was spread came to light. As Shilts states a number of times, many gay men literally "fucked themselves to death." He also heaps hammer-blows of well-deserved criticism on owners of gay bath houses, which Shilts refers to as "biological cesspools," and provides the kind of stomach-churning details that may be too much for some readers (think Crisco and limbs disappearing up...well, you get the picture).

As a result, Shilts was vilified by many in various gay communities throughout the US. Still, I can't help but feel that in some ways, he didn't go far enough in his criticism. For example, as the book moves into the early 1980s and the first instances of blood transfusion AIDS cases surface, Shilts rightly rips the arrogant executives of the blood industry for failing to take action to properly screen donors.

Yet, Shilts indicates that, for whatever reason, gay men donate disproportionately more blood than most other demographics in the US. They apparently continued to donate heavily as questions about blood safety were raised, and Shilts even mentions a phenomenon that he claims to have existed among some gay men: that they continued to donate blood as if the very act was a way of convincing themselves that they couldn't possibly contract AIDS.

So surely the question will rise up in the minds of many readers: does the gay community, or at the very least those infected men who donated blood, not bear some culpability in the horrible deaths of the many innocent people who died as a result of tainted blood transfusions? But Shilts never really goes near this angle and instead reserves the majority of his wrath regarding tainted blood for the money-grubbing scumbags in the blood industry who were apparently more concerned about the costs of implementing new screening procedures than the possibility of heading off the impending disaster.

Similarly, while Shilts despises the rationalizations and self-serving excuse-making of many in the gay community and other politically correct enablers in society (he calls their mealy-mouthed bullshit "AIDS-speak"), at times he seems to veer into that same territory himself.

Also, Shilts cannot resist the urge felt by so many non-fiction writers and engages in some myth-making. This is with regards to an early AIDS patient named Gaetan Dugas who was labelled "patient zero" for the apparent fact that he infected so many other men through his reckless sexual activity. This notion of a patient who caused the disease to spread faster than it otherwise would have has largely been debunked.

The storyline of Dugas features quite significantly in the early part of the book, replete with apocryphal anecdotes of Dugas happily informing other gay men that he has just infected them with AIDS. Also, Shilts builds Dugas up as being attractive in some kind of otherworldly way. But a Google image search turns up photos of a relatively average-looking dolt. I believe that Shilts knew how such a narrative would appeal to so many people's sense of the sinister and so he ran with it. However, to be fair, some researchers at the time also floated this idea of "patient zero" and gave some credence to it.

Shilts and the characters in the book rail against and righteously bash various levels of government, with the federal government under Ronald Reagan coming in for the most well-deserved and complete pasting. It's hard to believe how short-sighted and petty the Republicans were and how many lives were lost (e.g., limited funds for research and nation-wide information campaigns) due to foot-dragging and sometimes outright hostility. Reagan did not utter the word “AIDS” publicly until about 1986 or 87.

The book is prescient in many ways, especially in debunking the early propaganda that heterosexuals in North America should fear AIDS in the same way that homosexual men eventually did. And the Band Played On was first published way back in 1987 but Shilts already saw that kind of talk (i.e., that non-drug-using heterosexuals were at risk to the same degree as intravenous drug users and gay men) as fear-mongering and an attempt to get more people concerned about the disease and thus increase government funding. This was a number of years before the one-man North American heterosexual male epidemic hit in the form of Magic Johnson and before such shrill proclamations by the likes of Oprah Winfrey that heterosexuals in the US would be devastated by the disease in the same way that gay men had been. Of course, that has never happened.

Finally, I don't believe what Shilts says regarding those who died of AIDS; that they were heroic in the way they died. People beset by tragedy cope in any way they can because there is no other choice. Just as the word "hero" is tossed around casually in war, the reality is that, just as with millions who have already perished from AIDS, a much better description is “tragic waste.” However, I agree that people who had AIDS and spent their remaining days risking arrest during protests and did everything in their power to increase awareness and funding deserve a great deal of praise.

Despite some of the criticisms mentioned above, And the Band Played On is an informative and epic chronicling of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US and other parts of the world. While many people may have a general idea of how things transpired, they will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the disease and the numerous obstacles faced by scientists, activists and the people who were infected. Sadly, Shilts was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1994. He leaves an impressive legacy with And the Band Played On.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Lasting Influence of On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A petrol station somewhere on the road to Zaragoza, Spain. We trudged into the shop where motorists could pay for their petrol and purchase the usual selection of packaged food and drinks. Lost in the mists of time is the "how" of ending up there. I presume someone who had given us a lift dropped us off and wished us luck. The sun was already low in the sky, and we had long figured out that hitchhiking could be difficult at the best of times, but when the sun went down it was nearly impossible. With night coming on, we shamelessly badgered people getting in or out of their cars for a ride. We had had pretty good luck getting rides in Spain up to that point: as easily as anywhere else since we had first stuck our thumbs out on the outskirts of Amsterdam. But no one was willing to give us a lift at that bleak petrol station outside of Barcelona.

We decided to walk some more. Maybe we would find a better location for begging a ride, or maybe we would stumble on a cheap hotel where we could stay for the night. As we shuffled back to the road a car came to a halt next to us in the petrol station parking lot. We leaned in the open window and told the driver we were going to Zaragoza. Or, more accurately, we just said "Zaragoza." He motioned us to get in. We did, despite the strong odour of alcohol, and within minutes, we were out on the superhighway blasting towards our destination.

But the euphoria of a free ride quickly vanished as we realized how inebriated our driver was. He hammered the gas pedal to the floor and the speedometer flew past the 200 km/hour mark. He slashed by other cars as if they were standing still. His head started nodding to one side. We jolted him back to the present with loud warnings and exhortations to slow down. He was completely uncommunicative, though even if he had been speaking, we wouldn't have understood a word he said. He seemed to feed on our obvious fear. I started mentally saying goodbye to family members. I truly believed a deadly crash was imminent. Yet despite the impending horror, neither Hank nor I made any move to wrestle the steering wheel from the driver. It likely would have been futile and may have even had the opposite effect, sending us careening off the side of the road or into another car. And yet, as the nightmare played out, we stopped momentarily at a toll gate. Both Hank and I were experiencing the same emotions, but neither of us took that opportunity to get out of the car. The ordeal continued, but somehow we survived unscathed. It was the last time we hitchhiked together.

We spent some time in Zaragoza and then continued south by bus. We landed in the seaside resort town of Alicante. In our desperate attempts to save money and extend our travels, we slept on the beach for a few nights. A week or so earlier we had visited a bookshop in Barcelona and Hank had bought On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He had finished the book and now passed it on to me. I was blown away by what I read. It was as if all our experiences, emotions and observations of the time we had been travelling had been transposed onto the pages in front of me. The incredible highs and lows, the bizarre characters, the hitchhiking, the unhinged sense of freedom to go wherever we wanted, to leave any location in the rear-view mirror when the notion struck, to be the most irresponsible, out-of-control sons-of-bitches imaginable.

But after three months of travelling together, we were beginning to grate on each other's nerves. For the past couple of weeks I had been talking about striking off on my own, but Kerouac's words really solidified my desire to carve out a new travel experience. Would we have eventually gone our separate ways if I hadn't read On the Road? No doubt, but the lift-off from that incredible book lasted for months and probably contributed to the hell-bent mentality that gripped me as I said goodbye to Hank.

More than 20 years later—most of that time spent travelling or living in foreign countries—I decided it was time to revisit Kerouac's classic to see if it has stood the test of time. Would I still see On the Road the way I had years ago? Would Kerouac's words ring as true to me as they had more than two decades earlier?

On the Road opens in 1946. The war is over and Sal Paradise (Kerouac) is itching to hit the road and explore America. Letters from friends in Denver and San Francisco paint a picture of wild times and spiritual awakenings. Or at the very least, booze and women. The lure of adventure is strong for Sal, but almost as strong a motivating factor is Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), a legend among Sal's friends who have met him or heard of his growing reputation. Sal first meets Dean in New York, and their friendship and Dean's manic, unrelenting approach to life comprise a big part of the rest of the book.

Moriarty had a hard-scrabble upbringing, did time in reform school and is an inveterate car thief. But he is also a budding intellectual who thrives among his better-educated middle class companions. He looks to them for advice on writing, philosophy, music and mysticism. Moriarty is alternately described as a two-bit hood who has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist and convinced many around him that he is some kind of mystic.

Moriarty's manic personality, his real-time, stream-of-consciousness observations, his lack of any regulating influences (like, say, consideration for others), his capacity for hammering booze and drugs down his throat and his desire to go, go, go, make him a perfect hero for the writers, deadbeats, and wanderers who populate On the Road. The insatiable desire to see new locations, meet new, gone characters and experience life to its fullest regardless of consequences tie in perfectly with the sense of freedom and movement that make On the Road so memorable. With the spectre of Moriarty looming large in his mind, Sal begins his journey: He hops a few buses which take him as far as Joliet, Illinois, and then he keeps moving any way he can—usually by hitchhiking.

I wondered if my memories of On the Road had been coloured by where and when I had first read it, and then polished to a nostalgic sheen in the intervening 20 years. But it wasn't long after I started re-reading the book that I realized its solid reputation is built on Kerouac's stark, evocative writing that so beautifully straddles the line between joyous freedom and profound loneliness. In this passage, Paradise is in a hotel room in Des Moine shortly after his first cross-country trip begins. It so perfectly captures the feelings that were permanently carved into my memories during all those years of travel:
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.
Paradise's first destination is Denver, where he hooks up with numerous friends and once again seeks out the elusive and mysterious Dean Moriarty. But their time together is fleeting and Paradise continues on to California. He briefly works as a security guard in an army barracks, which, not surprisingly, doesn't turn out too well. And then Paradise is on the move again. Kerouac is often at his poetic best during arrivals and departures or when he's blazing down the road and enjoying the moment:
The sun goes down long and red. All the magic names of the valley unrolled—Manteca, Madera, all the rest. Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.
He continues down into southern California where he hooks up with a young Mexican woman. More antics, adventures, the occasional bout of paranoia, all in service of new tales to tell, new experiences, new emotions. And then, as it always does in every locale, it all falls apart. Paradise takes buses and rides from strangers and heads back east to the comfort of his aunt's house in New Jersey. Together with the stretches of sweet, aching desolation distilled into its purest essence, there is also plenty of humour:
I might have gotten a ride with an affluent fatman who'd say "Let's stop at this restaurant and have some pork chops and beans." No, I had to get a ride that morning with a maniac who believed in controlled starvation for the sake of health.
A year later Moriarty hooks up with Paradise again, this time at the home of Sal's brother in Virginia. Moriarty has a car now and they head to New York, then to Chicago, down to New Orleans, where they stay with Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs), through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and finally again to San Francisco. Inevitably, things go haywire again and Sal heads back east alone. But through it all, Sal and Dean have formed some kind of close bond, and Paradise often refers to Dean as his brother. You wouldn't have to stretch too far to infer an even more intimate relationship between the two (those inferences made much easier with the amount written by various observers and others who were part of the mix at the time).

As the novel winds down, Paradise and Moriarty reconnect a few years later and make their long-talked-about journey to a foreign country. Not to Europe as they had long planned, but south to Mexico. This final journey together has a more world-weary, slightly darker tone, although the appetite for hedonistic abandon is still there. The alcohol, drugs and prostitutes leave Sal laid out with a fever, writhing in pain, and Dean chooses that moment to say goodbye:
"All that again, good buddy. Gotta get back to my life. Wish I could stay with you. Pray I can come back." I grabbed the cramps in my belly and groaned. When I looked up again bold noble Dean was standing with his old broken trunk and looking down at me. I didn't know who he was any more, and he knew this and sympathized, and pulled the blanket over my shoulders. "Yes, yes, yes, I've got to go now.
Old fever Sal, good-by." And he was gone. Twelve hours later in my sorrowful fever I finally came to understand that he was gone. By that time he was driving back alone through those banana mountains, this time at night.
I enjoyed reading On the Road as much or more this time around. During the intervening 20 years, I spent more time travelling and living abroad. I also read other novels by Kerouac—though in my opinion, nothing else he wrote comes close to On the Road (probably a non-hipster opinion there—How could the most widely read novel of a gee-nee-us like Kerouac be his best? Say it ain't so...). However, some things jumped out at me that I didn't pay much attention to the first time.

First, the sheer number of people fucked over by the antics of Paradise, Moriarty and the other stand-up individuals who appear throughout the book. Child abandonment, thieving, the odd explosion of violence, and numerous other crimes and misdemeanors. It's basically an orgy of non-stop self-serving behaviour. Sadly, it rings true to many of my experiences while travelling. Something about knowing you are leaving a country next week spurs you on to more shameless acts of selfishness. This is not to suggest that bad behaviour is only perpetrated by feckless travellers. But there is a certain kind of glee that anything done in pursuit of the next high, natural or otherwise, trumps any kind of consideration for quaint, old-fashioned notions like common decency. The fact that Kerouac includes so many references to people cast aside in the pursuit of pleasure is one sign of authenticity, though I'm betting he was less truthful about his own bad behaviour than that of others he describes in the book.

Something else I noticed during my second reading: some of Kerouac's observations are mind-blowingly naïve. Perhaps the notion was new at the time that only the marginalized, the outcasts, or the minorities are genuine and should engender a kind of religious awe, but now it's a sad cliché. Maybe the desperate need to break away from establishment beliefs and morals was part of that kind of thinking. And maybe those first, fresh-eyed interactions with people and places that were previously off limits do result in a sort of joyous naïveté and accompanying observations. Come to think of it, I did all those things too, and had a kind of simplistic take on those experiences that to me seemed so original and daring at the time. And sweet mother of fuck, I've just talked myself out of the initial criticism. Still, anyone who has lived in a third-world country will cringe as they read some of Kerouac's musings on the poor people of Mexico. Of course, Kerouac was still very young at the time of those observations, and anyway, a more nuanced, sneering nihilism would likely have spoiled the effect.

Although On the Road may be classified as a novel, it's no secret that it's really a thinly disguised autobiography, as are most of Kerouac's books. Which means that there are not the same opportunities for presenting conflict as in purely fictional tales. But there's still plenty of conflict in On the Road. Often it comes in the form of the previously mentioned instances when people are parting company and disputes remain unresolved (or the disputes sparked the departures, cloaked in the guise of "time to move on"). Also, within Kerouac's narration, there is more than a little internal conflict. Regardless of how many new experiences you have, that kind of lifestyle over an extended period of time, together with sacrificing a more stable situation, can take its toll.

Is the lifestyle worth it? For Kerouac and other artists who lived at that time, the excesses apparently helped them achieve a state of mind that allowed them to create art. But many of them, including both Kerouac and Cassady, would pay the ultimate price. Cassady died at 41 after a lifetime of drug abuse topped off with one final epic, monumental session of ingesting all manner of substances, before striding out into the night, never to be seen alive again. It was somehow symbolic and appropriate that he was found dead next to a railroad line, on the move and seeking out new experiences until the very end. Kerouac died of health problems brought on by alcoholism at the age of 47, and by all accounts his last years were not happy ones.

I often reminisce about my own long-ago days of travel and adventure, and while I might never get the chance to relive them, they will be a life-long source of inspiration and comfort. In a similar way, On the Road will always be an important book to me—for the memory of reading it the first time and how it affected me, and for the writing itself, which so perfectly captures the emotions and mindset of that particular kind of carefree, come-what-may travel experience.