18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev


Life’s a Great Balancing Act

The driving idea behind Zachary Karabashliev’s debut novel 18% Gray, that one has to experience some sort of extreme loss in order to gain a better understanding of what’s truly important in life, certainly isn’t a new one.  However, the beauty of this particular tale lies in the author’s supreme skill at weaving together autobiographical nuggets with invented exaggerations and half-truths in order to create a spellbinding, slightly skewed, metafictional version of reality where every experience, no matter how minor, carries heightened significance, and the absurd becomes the expected norm.

As the novel opens, readers are introduced to a fictional version of author Zachary Karabashliev, a former photographer turned pharmaceutical worker living in Southern California whose wife has recently left him.  The circumstances behind her disappearance aren’t immediately explained.  Instead, the story is relayed through three distinct narratives: the present day (which based on specific events that occur appears to be late 2007), flashbacks which move forward from the beginning of the couple’s relationship in 1980s Bulgaria through to its stunning conclusion, and random snippets of dialog between the pair which appear to have been captured during random photo shoots.  With the exception of the last stream, which finds the reader spying on their conversations, the bulk of the story is told from the perspective of the highly endearing, but as equally unreliable Zach.

Filled to the brim with overabundance of what at first appears to be honesty, and told by way of straight-forward, conversational language, Zach immediately pulls the reader into his inner circle, trusting them with his confusion and pain over the disappearance of his wife, and carrying them along on his journey to understand where it all went horribly wrong.   And boy does his journey take him places.

The first stop is Tijuana, where drunk from drowning his sorrows, Zach finds himself breaking up a violent fight in a Mexican back alley.  This pivotal event, which leaves him battered and finds him fleeing the scene in a stolen van, serves as the springboard for everything else that occurs.  After he successfully crosses the border back into the United States he discovers a body and a giant bag of weed stashed in the back of the vehicle.  Barely conscious, he wipes the van clean of prints, stashes the weed in the back of his wife’s sports car, and makes for home.

What he soon discovers is that the only person he knows that can help him unload the massive amount of pot he’s suddenly come into possession of lives in New York City.  Thus his road trip of self-discovery begins.  Travelling the country in his missing wife’s car, and armed only with a camera, Zach is about to expose a different side of America, and of himself.  It’s a journey that’s equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching.  It’s reminiscent of, among other things, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss:

You’ll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

That’s not to imply that Zach’s adventure is an any way simplistic, but it does remind one that the simplest truths are often the ones that get most clouded and distorted by the seemingly simple act of having to get out of bed and live one’s life every single day.

NOTE: There’s another novel titled 18% Gray floating out there by American author Anne Tenino which  features graphic depictions of gay sex that accurately reference the clinical names for parts of the male anatomy such as the corona (the raised rim around the base of the head of the penis) and the frenulum (connecting tissue between the foreskin and the vernal mucosa.)  I never thought I’d see the day that porn would require keeping a medical dictionary handy!:

James’s mouth opened in a gasp. Matt sucked the corona, tonguing around his thick ridge. James moaned gutturally and let his head flop back on the bed. Matt smiled around his cock head and flicked his tongue into the slit, then dragged the tip across James’s frenulum. James groaned, louder, and jacked his hips.

If you’re thinking of buying 18% Gray make sure you buy the right version.  I’ll leave it up you to decide exactly which one that is…

18_Grey ★★★★½
18% Gray
By Zachary Karabashliev
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Books
(2008) 2013

276 Pages
ISBN 9781934824719

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.