THE CROSS-COUNTRY AMERICAN ROAD TRIP, like the hard-boiled detective story or the tale of a damsel in distress, is the kind of thing it’s hard to narrativize with any originality any more. A story told and retold from coast to coast, the American Road Trip is a third-order cliché: a cliché made of clichés made of clichés. Enter Zachary Karabashliev, the Bulgarian-American author and narrator/protagonist of the novel 18% Gray, the new gold standard in transcontinental On The Road permutations.
A bonafide Eastern Bloc hit when it was published in Bulgaria in 2008, 18% Gray is told in an alternating tripartite narrative structure which switches between Zack’s present-day quest, the story of his past, and a conversation between him and his partner Stella, the traumatic break from whom sets Zack on a sine wave of opportunity and crisis. The three alternating sections each deal with time differently. In the present-day narrative, Zack progresses in a linear chronology, although the second half of the journey goes a lot faster than the first. The flashbacks that tell Zack’s story up until his split from Stella, meanwhile, are like a biography whose pages have been hastily reassembled after being dropped on the floor. One minute the reader is watching Zack outfit a state-of-the-art darkroom he will never use as he settles comfortably into a Southern California lifestyle full of compromises; the next we’re in Varna, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s, and he and Stella are broke students having sex in a graveyard. The third section presents, with minimal punctuation and capitalization, a single conversation between the lovers as Zack takes long-exposure portraits of Stella:
— do you still want me to hold this card?
— 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 photographs is actually in their middle values
— i understand. so we keep going?
— we keep going
She’s impatient to be done. But either because he’s an insensitive artist boyfriend or because he has a premonition of what’s to come, he keeps talking her into posing for longer.
The first stage of Zack’s journey begins when he flees his Southern California home while it is threatened by seasonal wildfires, which, if they weren’t so damn common, would be a flagrant case of the pathetic fallacy in the first degree. In the course of a self-destructive bender through a hyperreal Tijuana (“Smoky bar, maroon booths, brown padding on the walls, columns painted in black enamel, Christmas lights, on the walls are faded posters for Corona, Dos Equis, and Tecate. Leather jackets, Hawaiian shirts, and navy uniforms are crowded around the tables”), Zack gets himself get-yourself-kidnapped drunk. In a brazen last-ditch effort, he dispatches his attackers, frees himself, and gets away with their standard-issue kidnappers’ van.
Back in California, Zack examines the vehicle he just drove across the border and freaks out when he discovers what he thinks is a body in the back seat. Looking closer, he sees what’s in back is “a giant plastic bag, stuffed full, slightly bent in the middle.” It smells of straw, but sweeter. Before Zack has fully wrapped his head around the (to use a colloquial expression) shitload of weed he just accidentally stole, he has already driven it halfway home.
This sounds like the intro to a stoner comedy, but there are actually a lot more cigarettes than there are joints in 18% Gray. Zack has just the right amount of knowledge about weed and its trafficking to handle the situation exactly wrong. He knows what he has is valuable, but his math is based on the experience of a guy who prefers the matte green of a vodka-soaked martini olive to the crystalline glean of kind bud: “One joint is about five bucks. Ten joints are about fifty. A hundred joints are five hundred. One pound makes …” There he gets stuck. In the face of an obvious windfall, Zack doesn’t know how to handle it, and he doesn’t know enough to know that he doesn’t know enough. But he knows a guy who might know a guy who might know what to do with a shitload of weed, a guy that isn’t in Southern California — he’s in New York, thousands of miles (and hundreds of pages) away.
In the flashback narrative, we learn that Zack is a Bulgarian émigré who faked his credentials to get a job overseeing subject selection for medical trials. Working diligently, he excels at the job, maybe a little too much. Not only does he go from being a struggling professional photographer to a well-supplied hobbyist without the time and energy for his new toys, but Zack’s bosses also communicate that things would be easier if he weren’t quite so diligent. They want him to rubber-stamp studies without the company incurring the liability that comes with negligence. Zack accedes, and soon finds himself an American success story, the owner of a beautiful car and a beautiful house. Meanwhile, his beautiful wife Stella has found her own success as a painter and grown disinterested in her boring Americanized husband.
By the time Zack decides to drive across his adopted country, he’s ready to throw it all away. With Stella gone and fire gaining on his home, the balancing scale that measures whether his life is particularly worth living have tipped decidedly toward no. The giant bag of weed doesn’t so much offer him an out as an excuse that he’s able to convince himself is an out. I don’t know if the play on Gatsby’s orgiastic green light is intentional, but Zack’s own sack of green is as good a metaphor for the current manifestation of the American dream as any. It looks like free money, but the work is always in the conversion.
When Zack approaches a friend’s dealer for advice — framing it as research for a fictional story he’s writing — the wise Jamaican stereotype sees through his shallow pretense and tells him to drop it:
“How can the hero in my story sell a bag of marijuana?”
“He can’t,” the big black man answers calmly.
“What do you mean, he can’t?!”
“He don’t know how ... Listen man. Your hero has a problem. First, he loses, then he finds, yes? What he finds, though, he doesn’t need. And what he needs, he already has ... Let him move on now. OK, man?”
After all, if moving sizable quantities of drugs from place to place in a timely fashion were as easy as it sounds, there wouldn’t be so much money in it. Small-scale trafficking in which the participants can’t afford to just walk away is a narrative time bomb; it’s just begging for complications. And there are always complications.
Whether it’s a couple grams in a baggie or a dozen pounds in a garbage bag, carrying around weed changes your relationship to law enforcement. When you’re one routine search away from prison, every encounter with a cop is a close call. And the road — like the country for which it’s a synecdoche — is crawling with cops. In his first motel, Zack gets caught in the crossfire between the police and a gang member who probably wasn’t sent there to kill him but gives it a try anyway. The paranoia that comes with crime makes Zack focus on himself, which serves as only a short-lived relief from thinking about Stella. Worrying he’ll be busted after surviving the shooting, Zack thinks:
I hope that everybody one day will understand that what happened during these last few days was only an accident. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. But then again, every place is the wrong place, and every time is the wrong time, if you are not there, Stella.
But he’s not caught by the police, and as long as he keeps driving Zack doesn’t have to figure out what’s next other than highways and exits.
Zack’s road trip is a tour, too, of American stereotypes. 18% Gray lacks the usual ribald humor of a picaresque adventure novel because Zack isn’t so much running toward something as he is running away from his own recent past, from the memories that make up the rest of the novel. He approaches his new home with carefully maintained detachment, as when he hears a waitress utter something resembling a national motto: “Life begins Friday night. America lives for Friday night! TGIF, America!” Karabashliev's Southwest is full of red-state rubes who can’t locate the closest “expresso” machine. When Zack meets a grocery clerk, he can’t stop himself thinking “about her no-fewer-than-three kids, about the husband with his wife-beater and a can of Budweiser in front of the big-ass flat screen, about her hidden bottle of vodka in the garage, about her Prozac.” Zack’s job had been to look into the lives of statistically diverse groups of Americans — albeit only those hard-up enough for money to volunteer their bodies for medical testing — and it seems not to have endeared him to his adopted countrymen. In his studied disregard for the clutching desperation around him, Zack is becoming just as hollow and desperate — just as American — as everyone else.
Karabashliev swaps out the three narratives like moveable lenses, using them to pull different aspects of the central relationship into focus. He writes the novel like a narrated slideshow of linked snapshots. The reader sees Stella and Zack in close-up and telephoto. Neither a human MacGuffin nor an idealized ex, Stella is a fully developed character. She cheats, she lies, she’s cold and disinterested, but the reader has no trouble seeing real affection in even the saddest recollections. Zack is more Orpheus than Odysseus, the bodybag of weed his Stella-shaped Eurydice. He’s only been playing at being an American, but when he loses Stella, he can no longer distinguish between his true face and his false one. This is a story about what you risk when you invest everything you like about yourself in another person for safekeeping, just so you can make a living in a region prone to fire.