With both parents out of the home having a go at the notion of a two-income household, I spent the bulk of my formative weekdays with a babysitter. More specifically, I spent them with one Cathy Brookshire, a lifelong Atlantan who, in between cigarettes and episodes of Days of Our Lives, would ply my virgin palate with the classics of Southern cooking. There were collard greens and black-eyed peas and jars of skinned tomatoes taken from her garden. There was okra and cornbread and squash casserole. There were sweet potatoes and pecan pies that she made with nuts that we gathered from a tree in her backyard. I’m told that it was all quite delicious. In fact, my mother, who would sit down to a plate of such stuff most nights when coming to pick me up, will still, if prompted, recall this cooking with what might be called an almost Proustian wistfulness. Being four-years old, however, my love for the joint’s menu began and ended with the fried baloney sandwich. A circle of vaguely pinkish "meat", browned and slipped between two slices of mayonnaise-slathered bread, it was, as I remembered it, the world’s most perfect food.
Which is why one recent night, finding myself hungry and in a state somewhat less than sober, I decided that I would make one. After easing down to the local all-night bodega for the necessary supplies, I tossed a few pieces of baloney in a frying pan, cooked them till properly charred, applied a generous dose of mayonnaise to two slices of Wonderbread, and had at it.
It wasn’t quite as good as I’d remembered.
To be perfectly honest, it really wasn’t very good at all.
I bring this up because, well, as you might have noticed, I’ve something of a weakness for hopelessly tangential introductions. Not entirely coincidentally, however, the preceding sidetrip also happens to encapsulate quite neatly the broader themes and eventual subject of this article, which is to say — crushing disappointment, the delicate flower of youth, and my reaction upon rereading Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the first time in some 15 years. Or, to put things in the most august of critical terms: a bit like fried baloney, the book wasn’t quite everything I’d cracked it up to be.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which, hereafter shall be known simply as the HGTTG), for those uninitiated among you, is the story of Earth’s destruction and the subsequent intergalactic wanderings of English everyman Arthur Dent and freelancing, freewheeling alien-about-town, Ford Prefect. The first in an "increasingly inaccurately named" trilogy of five, the book traffics in many of your standard science fiction tropes — aliens, robots, spaceships, wormholes — but more than anything, it’s a grand peripatetic farce, a goof on human arrogance, bureaucracy, and digital watches. When I was thirteen, I thought it was just about the greatest thing ever. Of course, when I was thirteen, I also thought the Steve Miller Band was just about the greatest thing ever. And so, given the recent release of the long-awaited movie adaptation, I thought it might be an appropriate occasion to see if my youthful opinion still held any water.
Now, there was never any question of Adams’ stuff being mistaken for, say, Kafka, but I’d always harbored the hope that he might one day take his place on the shelf beside the likes of P.G. Wodehouse. Reading him again after a decade-and-a half, though, I’ve got to say, there’s not much chance of it.
For one thing, there’s the prose. I hadn’t noticed the first time around, but by and large it’s strikingly pedestrian. I wasn’t expecting Nabokovian wordplay or anything, but a little life, a little pop, a bit of electricity coursing across the page — that didn’t seem to me too much to ask. For the most part, though, the stuff just lies there sprawled out limply, every couple of paragraphs or so summoning whatever strength is needed to push the plot on its way.
Then there’s the faint scent of sanctimony surrounding the enterprise. Though the book is essentially a farce, there was some small part of Adams that wanted to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this seriousness tends more often than not to manifest itself as that moon-eyed brand of Profound Thought that ultimately is anything but. Take, for example, the book’s prologue, and this fairly typical passage meant to zing our money-grubbing ways:
"The planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."
I recall reading it years ago to my father across the kitchen table, fairly glowing with the ironic righteousness of it all.
"Hey, that’s great," he said, indulging me momentarily "so when’s that guy gonna start tossing his own green pieces of paper away?"
It’s a question that only seems more astute with time.
This sort of stuff could be easily enough forgiven, however, if HGTTG still remained the spasm-inducingly funny book I once thought it to be. Somehow, though, it’s not. Phrases that once brought me near tears left me stone-faced this second time around. Passages that I remember as bringing on minute-long runs of near-asphyxiating laughter now inspire a mild chuckle, or, failing that, a wry smile. For whatever reason, somewhere along the line, the hilarity got dialed down a bit.
Truth be told, I knew it from the beginning — or at least suspected as much. At first, I ignored the fact that I wasn’t laughing, assuming I’d slip back into the old rhythm as soon as I got to the good parts. Then, though, I got to what I remembered as the good parts, and, well, they weren’t really that good. Maybe these, though, weren’t the good parts? Perhaps they were still ahead? And from there it all went something like this: Flip ahead. No. Perhaps behind? No. Maybe ahead further? Maybe back again? Maybe that bit if I reread it just once more? Maybe this bit if I phrase it in just the right way? Maybe this? Maybe that? Maybe there? Maybe here? And so back and forth, back and forth I went, wandering about the book like a man in a parking lot who’s forgotten where he left his car.
Eventually, though, you can’t help but arrive at the conclusion that whatever it is you’re looking for probably wasn’t there in the first place. Given that the world can always use another work of comic genius, this is something of drag. Nothing to keep a person up nights, perhaps, but too bad all the same. My adolescent dreams of a spot in the canon for Douglas Adams are dead. Oh well, I guess we’ll always have Betelgeuse. •