The theme of the road is probably one of the most ancient story telling mechanisms known to man; and maybe one of the best. From Odyssey to Lord of the Rings storytellers have sent their characters on various journeys so that before reaching their destination and ending their epic quest they can also find themselves on the way there.
Without spoiling too much, Zack (a fictional version of the author) goes on a bing drinking marathon through Tijuana, Mexico to somehow soothe his feelings after being left by his beloved, Stella. Throughout the night Zack gets wasted, beat up and comes into possession of a gigantic bag of marihuana. After a cold shower and a couple espressos Zack decides to get his life together and drive all the way from California to New York and try to sell recently acquired ganja.
For me this book was a whirlwind of emotions. For the majority of the book I was unable to figure out wether I am fond of Zack and sympathise with him or is he just a sorry and irresponsible attempt at a human being. His journey across the North American continent examines him as a person and shows us what makes him tick as it takes place physically through the dusty highways and abandoned towns of the United States and through mystical and metaphysical Wild West of his tired mind and fantasies, place where the American Dream is supposed to come true and where everyone is a noble outlaw under Pax Americana.
The story is told in a parallel manner. The records of Zack’s journey are intertwined with memories of Stella and him retelling history of their love to the moment when she left, as well as with enigmatic photo shoot that seems to comment on Zack’s mental condition and his thoughts. And believe me, his mind is a mess yet not one that is tough to follow. Everything is written very upbeat; a tangled mixture of details, down to earth attempts at philosophy and random thoughts. Very beatnik if I may say so. What at first might seem like an incoherent strain of people and sceneries has a logical and inevitable conclusion.
At one moment Zack explains the titular 18% gray as a photographic term. He says:
– the beauty of every photograph, Stella, is in the development of its middle values, in the gray. black and white are simply extremes without which even the most interesting negative seems to be lacking contrast. the life of photograph is actually in their middle values
That is what happens here. 18% Gray is not black and white, it does not deal in absolutes and does not try to answer any higher questions. It balances in the area between the two extremes, raw and naked like a desolated road waiting for someone to drive through her and put on her their own boundaries.
Maybe I got carried away. Maybe unexpected similarities cut me deeper than I expected. Maybe it is another road trip story with destructive American Dream in the background.
Or maybe it is a little master piece.
Five out of five Toblerone’s.