Monday, March 29, 2010

Book Review - "The Lunatic Express" by Carl Hoffman

Midlife crisis. It’s always interesting to see how men deal with it. Some go out and buy Porsches, some exchange their wives for newer models, or go the secretary/intern banging route, and some become Dalai Lama groupies. Mr. Trouble got himself… well, nevermind… Let’s just say he survived the punishment and I didn't go to prison.

And then there’s Carl Hoffman. He didn’t do any of the above (though it sounds from his book that an affair might or might not have happened in the process). Instead, he packed his bags and went traveling on the world’s most dangerous buses, ferries, trains, planes and automobiles. And lived to tell the tale.

That tale is described in excruciating detail in his new book “The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World ... Via its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains and Planes”.


I myself have done a fair share of “lunatic express” traveling. Among those, there are a few that, still to this day, make me go: “What the f*ck were you thinking?”
– a bus that was a truck that ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere in the mountains (the driver came up with the brilliant idea of driving in reverse on some pretty steep hairpin bends to our destination – to get the last drops of gas in the tank, I eventually ended up using this trick myself one fine day);
- a Sudan Airways flight with broken seatbelts, broken seats and broken everything, including the toilet – I vividly remember a river of sewage flowing down the isle from the rear lavatory;
- a taxi ride in Kinshasa that almost ended in… well, nevermind.
We’re here to talk about Mr. Hoffman’s travels, not my own.

So yeah, he goes on his trip, rides those crazy Peruvian buses, African minibuses, Indonesian and Bangladeshi ferries and gets all philosophical about it. It seems like he set out to find the answer to life universe and everything, but instead all he found was some broad in India who apparently wasn’t bothered much by the fact that he was a married man.

Mr. Woodward, who reviewed this book in the New York Times, couldn’t figure out why Mr. Hoffman did it. Well, of course - the clueless brotherhood of the middle-aged penis… Ask any woman why and she’d tell you why. When men get to a certain age and lose the ability to think rationally, they do stupid things and brag about it, just like back in the junior high days.

Fortunately for Mr. Hoffman, he found a way to turn his midlife crisis bragging into a book and make some money out of it.

Ah yes, the book… It’s serious, or rather, it takes itself very seriously. Full of self-righteous “I’m a traveler, not a tourist” attitude. “I want to go deeper, off the beaten track, meet the people, smell the people, touch the people” humorless prose. Bill Bryson it ain’t. This is heavy-duty “meaning of life” stuff. (Though I’m sure that if Bill Bryson wrote a book about the meaning of life stuff, it would be very entertaining.)

Still, would I recommend this book to others? Yes, from a purely educational point of view. Millions of people travel day in and day out the way Mr. Hoffman described and experienced himself. To them, it’s not a travel-writing adventure, this is how they live. And this is how they die.

PS. It seems that most reviews of this book were glowing. And written by men. Go figure.

1 comment:

  1. I am about to publicly become a Budget Trouble groupie. Admiring how forthright and direct are your writings in a land of layers of obscura which I have adopted as my heart's home in those things which compel me and which I love....Japanese calligraphy, Murasaki Shikubu's residence iro iro, this post had me laughing aloud and nodding my head.
    The first year I spent in Japan coincided with Bill Clinton's in the Oval Office antics which may not have been mid-life related but rather simply his style. Speaking no Japanese at that time, often having someone translate my responses to questions about these antics and my opinion of same, I finally despaired of trying to be polite and answered thus......."Unzip a man's fly and his brains fall out." Said translator never again asked me that question, and happily Bill fell off my radar while I focussed on discovering the Japan I had longed to see and my study of Japanese calligraphy.
    Delightful following your writing!