As a longtime Rush fan, musician, writer, traveler and fledgling cyclist, I was interested in reading Neal Peart's first published novel. The transition from lyricist to prose writer can be difficult, but Peart does an excellent job. Before reading the book, I already had respect for the man, a rock and roll drummer, for going on a cycling tour in eastern Africa. I would respect anyone for undertaking such a trip, and after reading the book, I respect him even more.
Peart's language is conversational throughout most of the book, as if he's relating the events over a drink at a pub. Many of his insights probed much deeper when he explored the culture of the people of Africa in general and Cameroon in particular, offering comparisons to a previous journey he had made to west Africa.
We see the landscape through the writer's eyes as he cycles up hills and navigates dirt roads, rocks, gun-toting guards at checkpoints and the sometimes rewarding vantage points. Each village or stopping point is described and I felt as if I was part of the journey.
In addition to the daily travels, we get Mr. Peart's reactions and thoughts to people that he encountered on his travels. He does not try to gloss over personalities with stereotypes, but tries to present things as they are. Yes, the country and continent has been exploited, but there is a strong victim mentality and Peart points out that Africans themselves participated in the slave trade. All the problems of Africa did not originate from outside the country.
Yet there are also great moments of kindness experienced. The woman who says "you are welcome," the smiles from young children, or the family sharing its simple food with their guests. I found the visits to the various missions particularly interesting, and the affect upon the writer of the nuns singing vespers is moving.
Mr. Peart also writes about his relationships with the other four members of his group. David is their guide from Seattle, struggling to keep a good face while helping the slowest member of the group. Elsa, a sixty-year old woman with facile new age sensibilities and a sour disposition, is the cancer of the group, constantly falling behind and complaining about everything. Leonard is the stalwart Viet Nam veteran who remains an anchor throughout the book. Annie is a twenty-something needy type who has a "good heart" but is not very thoughtful or considerate.
There were several clashes amongst these personalities, and I appreciated Mr. Peart's knowledge of his own shortcomings and self-analysis. I would have liked to have seen a little more reaction of the other's toward him, but that is sometimes hard to capture or catalog unless one has a confidante within a group. The author did not have this, and the book ends with some loose ends among the different riders, or maybe they were just ready to get away from each other.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about the book is the strong emotional arc experienced by the author, probably unexpected when he set out on his journey. He begins with idealism intact, but after bouts of dysentary, an encounter with a drunken soldier armed with a gun, and an offical that tries to make off with his (and David's) passport, he truly undergoes some changes. There is a shift in attitude, but also a new appreciation of things taken for granted in developed countries. By the penultimate chapter, I felt just as tired and sweaty, bruised and bloody, bitten and beaten and just plain exhausted as the writer. The final chapter, his arrival in Paris to see his wife and get back to civilization, strikes quite a contract with his previous experience.
If I had to make a criticism, it would be that some parts were kind of soap box preachy, although I tended to agree with many of his views.
I'm looking forward to reading his next book, "Ghost Rider."