The most common thing you are going to heаr about Zachary Karabashliev’s 18% Gray is that it is the Bulgarian version of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. As Luben Dilov said it, “On the road. Not with Jack but with Zack.”. As a quote it sounds good, almost original, you might say. As a hint towards the topic of the book, it is a complete bullshit.
In 18% Gray the protagonist Zack is indeed on the road. He also takes the famous Route 66 (or what is left from it) as his prominent predecessor. He also travels from the West coast to the East coast, passing through places, people, villages, towns, cities. Zack looks a bit like Jack. And that’s about it with the similarities. We don’t have our Dean Moriarty here. We have a road ahead of us, sky above us, earth beneath us, and nothing left behind us.
Zack is a man of a transition. The transition between the past and the future, the old and the new, the east and the west, the communism and the democracy. The transition that happened in 1989 (the year I was born!) in Bulgaria that left the country devastated. Zack witnessed the poverty, the difficulties, the crimes, the lack of perspective, the deadlock, the despair, and, like many other Bulgarians, decided to immigrate. From the Bulgarian nightmare to the American dream. With hopes of a bright future, Zack and his wife Stela moved to the US, seeking to release their talent and to find happiness.
He is a photographer, she is an artist. He ends up working in a pharmaceutical company and she ends up leaving him. Zack has lost himself but has found something else – a bag of pot. “Before you find yourself, you have to lose yourself?” No! Before you find yourself, you have to find something else. In this case, a bag of pot.
Are we people of the extremes? Do we live lives in black and white? Can you always say with certainty that one thing is right and the other is wrong? What is the basis, on which you thread, to categorize anything that happens to you? Or do we always live in the middle? 18% gray? 18% gray is the starting point of black-and-white photography. Everything needs a starting point, a basis on which to judge everything else. Darker than 18% by how much %? Or lighter by how much %? Why exactly 18%? Well, why is life that way? Why does life go forward and not backward? Why don’t we die first and be born at the end?
18% Gray is a novel of travelling, of losing, searching, and finding. It’s a novel of dreams, hopes, love, and rejection. It’s a novel of despair. It’s a vulgar brutal confession of a man on the road. Man, who has nothing to lose yet so much to find. Does Zack find it the end? Does he know what he is searching for? Can we ever know what we want, and even if we know, can we find it?
This review is full of questions since the novel poses questions. All the time. Questions about life, questions about love, questions about the world. I can’t give you the answers. You have to find them in the book. Or at least, start asking yourself the right questions. The only right way to finding what you need is to ask the right questions. Before that you may ask a lot of wrong questions. Trial-and-error, dude. That’s life, trial-and-error.