Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review of the Day: Lunatic Express



Lunatic Express: Discovering the World . . . via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes by Carl Hoffman.  (This review was first published here, in the Internet Review of Books.)


Carl Hoffman is a travel junkie. He hits the road like some men hit the bottle. His career as a journalist and author had taken him to the far edges of the world, writing about life aboard a chemical tanker in the Atlantic, flying missionaries in New Guinea, reindeer herders in Siberia, and driving the Baja 1000.

Hoffman came to crave these adventures the way any addict craves his drug of choice. As he describes it:

Home became even more strange to return to. The two lives were jarring[,] but I didn’t tell anyone how difficult it was becoming to straddle these two worlds. I was ever more open to the world and ever more closed at home . . . until the time that I looked forward to most was walking down that Jetway, rather than coming home.

Finally, what looked like a typical mid-life crisis blossomed into full-on travel withdrawals -- Hoffman became physically ill, but with no diagnosable malady. After a year of feeling as if he had “a simmering flu,” he was finally cured by spending two months on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, writing about the search for Amelia Earhart.

Not surprisingly, Hoffman’s travel jones took a toll on his marriage. Back from the Earhart assignment, now separated from his wife, he was “conscious for the first time of a deep unhappiness, profoundly disconnected from the life I’d thought unshakable.” He decided that a real blowout of a travel bender was the answer to his problems, and the idea for The Lunatic Express was born. Hoffman wanted to travel around the world using only the most perilous means of public transportation -- the statistically most dangerous airlines, overcrowded ferries, treacherous buses, and perilous trains -- and write a book about his journey.

He sought to experience travel not as a holiday but as the necessary evil that most of the people in the world experienced.  Hearkening back to the French roots of the word travel, he described this necessary evil as “a simple daily act of moving from one place to another on the cheapest conveyance possible” but “still a punishing, unpredictable, and sometimes deadly work of travail. ” Hoffman spent five months traveling from his home in Washington, D.C., on a route that took him to Havana, then to South America, Africa, Indonesia, India, Afghanistan, China, Mongolia, and Russia, before a final leg on a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles back to home.

Each chapter opens with a snippet of a news story about a travel disaster -- airplanes crashing into mountains, ferries sinking, buses skidding off cliffs -- elated to the place or particular conveyance featured in that section of the book. Obviously, Hoffman survived to write the book, but the very real risks associated with his trek make his descriptions even more riveting. It is interesting enough to read about a rickety, overcrowded bus driving overnight through the Andes. But the tale becomes harrowing after reading of other buses along that route that plunged into 1,600-foot-deep gorges, killing everyone on board.

Hoffman’s clear, journalistic style is immediately engaging, depending as it does on descriptive details instead of purple metaphor. Readers feel the muggy heat of the Amazon; the smoky grit of the Indian train; the bone-jarring jolt of a propane truck driving off-road across the Mongolian steppe; and every rock hard, joint-numbing, third-class seat, bench, platform, and floor Hoffman tried to sleep on. Experiencing Hoffman’s travels second-hand will be uncomfortable adventure enough for most people.

The book concentrates on transport, as Hoffman rushes from train station to taxi to ferry dock to auto rickshaw to bus terminal. But his descriptions of the world beyond this series of conveyances are some of the best parts, including stories of his visits to a Brazilian gold mining barge, a bird market in Kabul, and this “Dickensian” auto garage in Nairobi:

Block after block of mud passageways littered with garbage and upended vehicles and men sleeping on piles of tires and the sparks of welders and the smell of smoke and oil and diesel and Bondo. It was one lane wide, with two-way traffic. It was hot and glaring, a place of burning fires and braziers and hammering and music, and the mud was so dark, so black, so viscous, it was like oil. It was the worst and the most compelling place I had ever seen.

Hoffman would have done better had he stuck to writing about the world outside his bus windows and spent less time gazing at his own navel. No matter how compelling his personal quest seemed to him, whether he was going to patch things up with his wife and learn to be content at home or continue roaming the world in search of distracting escapades is the sort of banal, existential conflict that is only interesting to the person conflicted.

Trying to make his personal angst relevant to the larger story only made things worse. The more Hoffman agonized over his feelings of isolation, his inability to bond with his friends, and his marginalization of his family, the more his anxieties seemed petty in comparison to the daily efforts of the people he traveled with. His conclusion -- that “I had to forgive myself and start again” -- is a particularly awkward way to wind up a book supposedly about the millions of people who face danger daily and who do not have the luxury of a fresh start.

But when Hoffman isn’t fretting about himself, The Lunatic Express is a terrific ride.


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