Fifteenth book reviewed as part of the 130 Challenge.
“Karan Bajaj has a lot to say but he doesn’t know how to say it.”
This is how Tame SheWolf* described him as she gave this book to me; and was she right! Johnny Gone Down is the story of Nikhil aka Nick aka Buddha aka dog-only-knows-what-else and his (mis)adventures riding on copiously exaggerated luck in Cambodia, followed by Thailand, then Brazil, the United States of America and finally ending in India. On this journey, he keeps losing money and peace of mind (and some pieces of his body too) but manages somehow to get it all back time and again, while also winning the hearts of quite a few kind strangers.
The story is definitely a page turner, but all the pseudo-philosophical babble that crowds the pages gives the book a pathetic feel of artificial wisdom. It is as if Bajaj is desperately trying to sell enlightenment to you, like a tour guide outside a major destination trying to get you to hire him. He claims to have all the answers and the way he talks of things, it sounds like he truly does, but then it is just empty and muddled borrowed wisdom at best.
In this book, he has tried to tie all the stories with the common thread of the Karma Yogi, someone who simply does their duty without caring for the rewards/repercussions. But he also flirts with the idea of detachment and materialism and tries to explain the rationale behind both, but fails to do justice to either. In fact, I wanted to finish the book real quick just to see where exactly he was trying to go with all this babble.
If we leave that aside, we have the story. The story is okay and I quite looked forward to read about the various experiences that Nick has in different countries, but then again, these seem superficial too. The characters in the book are far too similar and whatever little differences there are, are stereotypical at best. Nick is always in deep thought about the meaning of life and the nature of suffering, to the extent that it seems that he is incapable of doing anything else. I got so tired of his philosophical ruminations about his horrible experiences that I started to skip them entirely after I was halfway into the book, and I’m sure I didn’t miss much. But as if a far-fetched story about a brooding young man wasn’t enough, you have the ending that is too sugary sweet and lovey-dovey to even belong in such a novel. That was a real shocker and definitely an amateurish job.
Coming back to the quote that I started this review with; while reading this book, I couldn’t help but marvel at the ambition of this guy. He decided that he will write about almost everything that he could, from that era (the 70s-80s) – the brain drain from India (Nick is an MIT guy with a job at NASA), the nerd culture, naivety of youngsters, Khmer Rouge, Vietnam, despotism, nirvana, Buddhism, religion, politics, cruelty, drugs, cartels, the dot-com boom, mafia network, the nexus of media and crime, etc.. You name it, it’s there (okay, I might be exaggerating but you get the drift, right?)
But then, he doesn’t really do justice to even one of those things. Every topic is touched but very superficially. Since he was late to the party, most of what he says about these topics seems recycled and not properly researched. By trying to talk about so many of things, he ended up talking about nothing in particular at all, which left me sad, to be honest because I expected more from him when I saw his nerdy picture on the back cover, with Machu Pichu in the background. I felt that he will include his own experiences collected while travelling to different places.
Maybe he did that and maybe his observations were just plain shallow. I can’t help but draw a comparison with Vikas Swarup (author of Q & A, that later became famous as Slumdog Millionaire, an incredibly horrible title) and find him lacking. Swarup tried something similar with Q & A and even with Six Suspects. He talks about the amazing adventure of an India boy in Q & A and while it is the quintessential rags-to-riches story, it has an amazing parallel story that makes it a fabulous read. In Six Suspects, he writes about the lives of 6 unconnected people and ties them all together towards the end in a thread that has no loose ends.
Swarup also uses his experience as a Foreign Service Officer of the India Government to color his characters with his observations about people when he visited various places. He also makes satirical and philosophical jibes at our way of life but not once, making it apparent that he is indeed doing so. The message that he wants to deliver blends perfectly with the story that he’s trying to tell you.
All of this Bajaj lacks. That is why, I don’t think it would be a big loss for anyone if they didn’t read this book. It is not a bad book, but not a great book either.
P.S. I believe in ‘Nullius in Verba’ so you might want to check out some excerpts from the book to see for yourself.
*She’s been really quiet these past few months, so I encourage you to please visit her blog, (cleverly titled – Yeha, whatever) and show her some love.