First of all, let me get the following out of the way: yes, I count the writer Rick Harsch among “real-life” friends (i.e., not one of those you only “talk” to via one of the antisocial networking sites), so my review of his first e-book (but hardly Rick’s first book – he has previously published a heap of those… what were they… oh, paper artefacts!) might not be entirely objective (as if any review is). The thing is, Rick’s relentlessly critical outlook but nevertheless remarkably positive opinion of my own debut novel was what I desperately needed at a time when my confidence in my scribbling ability was faltering on a daily basis, and he has also been invaluable in his efforts to help me polish my own books and get them in front of readers. This was, as far as my own previous experience had indicated, rather unusual for “old-school” writers such as Rick.
As it happens, Harsch is not (yet?) a member of the modern, agreeable, happy-go-lucky gang of “indie authors”: he hails from the “olden” days when the stereotypical image of writers was still – with good reason, I suppose – that of obstinate, loopy, unsociable, disgruntled old geezers who most likely hate all other writers, but especially any who might materialise in their vicinity. After all, Rick was, once upon a time, on his way to becoming quite renowned for his traditionally-published and widely acclaimed “Driftless Trilogy” (The Driftless Zone, Billy Verite, and The Sleep of Aborigines), which has also been translated into French and made its way into the curriculum of the somewhat obscure University of Tasmania (as Rick defines it in Snake, “the intellectual center of the only block of land to exterminate all its aboriginals“). However – rather unsurprisingly, if you know what an onerous conundrum of uncalled-for incidents tends to surround Rick most of the time – due to an extremely unfortunate sequence of events, including but not limited to the vastly premature death of his Hollywood agent, a bitter though hilarious (to an external observer) dispute with his subsequent literary agent, the bankruptcy of his French publisher and other similarly torturous circumstances, Rick Harsch’s tenacious infiltration of the world literary canon has been on a rather involuntary and undeserved hiatus of late. The infamous downward spiral of the traditional publishing industry that has got out of control after the advent of e-readers has only further complicated Rick’s theretofore cunning world-domination scheme.
In light of all of the above (as well as because I practically forced him to), Rick has recently decided to join the indie author tribe. Arjun and the Good Snake is the first book of his to be re-released as an e-book, hopefully in a series of others that should follow. I’ve had the honour of formatting it for e-readers, and it should look good – I certainly hope so, and if it doesn’t, feel free to complain to me and hold me personally responsible, and I mean that! This I did most happily, for Snake has been, to date, my favourite book of Rick’s (with the possible exception of an upcoming “paper” one, which is still in the works); though I, unfortunately, haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Driftless Trilogy, because it is, sadly, out of print. (Rick is currently looking at the possibility of resurrecting it, but the fact that he doesn’t have the manuscripts in the electronic form will make this “project” difficult and, above all, long-winded.)
Reading Arjun and the Good Snake for the first time a few years back was the perfect way of getting to know Rick better, along with all of his numerous remarkable qualities as well as considerable faults. As he puts it himself in the introduction to Snake, “No character, especially that of the author, is safe” (from assassination, I guess). The (sort of) journal supposedly focuses on the six weeks in India (without alcohol, woe was Rick!) that the author spent on a quest to track down a cobra and hopefully also a Russell’s viper, the ophidian preference of his son. However, the “diary” is interspersed with the author’s intimate musings and ruminations: on his own failings, particularly the harrowing alcohol addiction (paradoxically, simultaneously soul-sucking and soul-giving, as anyone who has ever struggled with their share of problems with alcoholism will surely know); on his family, especially his relationship with his wife Sasikala and son Arjun; on India and all her unknowable depths; on philosophical, existentialist, even suicidal enigmas; as well as on the various goings-on back at the Slovenian coast, where the author had emigrated from the United States, primarily, as far as I know, to escape oppressive idiocy… Only to witness, to his dismay, the quickening of rabid, unhinged capitalism in a former socialist country, with all the savagery that has entailed.
Arjun and the Good Snake is not an “easy” book. If you’re an ardent believer in the magnificent contemporary Western world and appreciate the constant pursuit of instant gratification, ravenous consumption as well as instantaneous excretion – then this might not be a book for you. However, if you’re willing to put a bit of effort in a literary work rather than just be “entertained” by it, you’ll doubtlessly unearth and come to appreciate many a touching contemplative passage such as, for example, the following:
“We arrived to the sea – and this is where if I were ever to commit suicide, the time would be as appropriate as it would get, a wretched man standing apart from the alienated cluster representing all he’s got, unable to enjoy himself alone, alienated even from a circumstance too familiar to generate true despair; the waves relentlessly formed and reformed with their concealed force, spent themselves falsely, the sea sucking in with greed: There is much to be learned standing with pants rolled above the knees and feet planted on damp sand as the lace of water passes ankle high, and then the sand around the feet is stripped away with a surprising, even sinister, force that badly wants to take me under, too…“