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Soho Press: New York, 1993.
328 pp., $22.00 (cloth).
In this North American road novel, an introspective "perfessor" and his lubricious sidekick take off into the Wild Blue Yonder—except that the Official Road Novel Vehicle, a '58 GMC pickup, breaks down just before the book's opening paragraph, and the duo end up in Tibet, exploring the universe according to the Vajrayana—the school of Buddhism known as the Diamond Vehicle. At its best, this novel transports us far beyond any ordinary Yonder, revealing against exotic backdrops the multifaceted illusion/realities that spin within each human mind. At its worst, it reads like Lobsang Rampa (Tibetan Buddhism's dubious popularizer) narrated by Howard Stern.
Prof. Bob Harlow's mission is an urgent one: to return a couple of sacred mani stones he stole from a Tibetan Place of the Dead before a curse kills him, his wife, and their daughter (it has already done in their son). The curse is kind of like a mummy's curse, except it is the Dalai Lama's. Or rather, it's Bob Harlow's karma ripening, dragging him through a major adventure in purification. Stones of the Dalai Lama succeeds in keeping all these levels of truth and story moving kaleidoscopically in and out of each other.
The curse wrecked Harlow's pickup while he was driving and is screwing up his academic future at that intellectual nerve center of North Dakota where he works, the (fictitious) University of Mary. Not only that, the curse has turned his wife's hand black with an incurable infection, infested his daughter with head lice, killed his son in a motorcycle accident, and ruined his sex life. Returning the mani stones becomes an existential quest for Harlow; but it's more of a desperate hunt for sexual gratification for his sidekick, mechanic Vern Cugnet. Their adventures and misadventures among Chinese officials, prostitutes, demons, yogis, and lamas include a fictional interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, smuggled into Kathmandu (a place he has never visited in real life due to Chinese political pressure on Nepal).
This novel has serious points to make, one of the most serious being that it's important to be able to laugh at everything. Yet at times the book's comic effects seem a little strained, achieved at the expense of sympathy for the characters. Why must "Porky" be the name of Harlow's daughter's dog? Why must the Harlow family eat horrible-sounding Corned Beef Florentine at their Sunday barbecue? More important, why doesn't the accidental death of Harlow's troubled son move us—or Harlow—as much as we feel it ought to? The book should have avoided a real tragedy, or else given it more weight. As it is, the plot careens forward into yet another picturesque speech, yet another multicultural encounter, yet another crusty observation by Vern Cugnet: "Lissen, izzat true, Bob, Chinese broads got slanted toonies?" You definitely have to be in the mood for the doses of vernacular that this novel offers; there's so much dialogue that you sometimes feel like you're reading the script of a play. But if you're not in the mood for whatever's going on, just wait a few pages, and you'll stumble across a passage of truly lovely descriptive prose—or a turgid recounting of Milarepa's life story. This book's got everything from academic comedy to the World Series to an original, halfway interesting commentary on the Noble Eightfold Path. Its shifts in tone make reading as wild an adventure as an Indian bus ride through the Himalayas; but like an Indian bus, sometimes the novel works, and sometimes it breaks down.
The novel's Tibet can look like the place that Tintin visited, or the all-too-familiar Shangri-La of popular mythology. Lamas pronounce Truths in stilted orotundities; even tour guides are in touch with deeper magic. This rosy, cartoon image collides with a more sinister portrayal, colored blood-red by Chinese propaganda. "Tibet's part of China now," Harlow's wife blithely announces early on, and the novel never challenges this "fact." Later on, in Lhasa, a Tibetan woman "in a jeweled headdress" smashes the skull of a helpless, nonviolent Chinese soldier with a paving stone. Given the novel's fascination and sympathy with Buddhist points of view, these are definitely sour notes. The book has a right to its political opinions, however unpopular these might be; but if the author means to tilt at sacred cows, he lacks a sufficient firsthand knowledge of Tibet to be able to knock them over. To attribute a curse to the Dalai Lama, even in jest, is unconvincing to a reader who has spent any time at all in Buddhist circles. Not to mention the idea that mani stones might carry a curse: mani stones are so common, so benevolent that only a person unconversant with Himalayan culture would find them at all resonant as a device.
In general, fiction has no responsibility to literal truth, except inasmuch as fiction must try not to spoil a reader's pleasure in its fictive world. When a novel intersects with the facts as much as this one does, it must make a greater effort to support the magical illusion of coherence. Tibet is surrounded by mountains, on the other side of the world from "us"; over the centuries it has sustained more than its share of projections. Besides its existence in myth, however, it is also a genuine location, one that it's possible to be wrong about. This novel reads like an early draft of a book that should have, could have, been much better. Stones of the Dalai Lama deserved some rigorous editing: it needed more work to smooth out its inconsistencies of fact, implication, and tone. As it is, it's only halfway exotic, enlightening, or funny.
Kate Wheeler is a Contributing Editor to Tricycle.