A satirical road-trip, a former psychiatrist and his former client are looking for their future to be delivered from the ashes of their past, while undergoing zany (mis)adventures.
Gil Moss: Protagonist, father, recently bereaved, and a psychotherapist by profession.
Chum: Gil’s adolescent son, a gamer/hacker.
Doyle Wentworth: Former reality TV star, looking for one last chance to break into the big time.
Amanda Bray: Uses Chum’s attraction to her, to get him to drive her to California to sell an idea to her billionaire ex.
Melody Moss: Gil’s recently deceased wife, with whom he converses.
John Muir: Civil-War era environmentalist, after whom the wood is named.
Gil believes that Eco-Mood disorders (“raw, existential Gaia depressive states”) are a new psychiatric condition, essentially caused by concerns around climate change. Gil himself seems to suffer from this, his anxiety being triggered by thoughts of earthquakes. This anxiety prevents him from travelling, and interferes with his sleep. Gil’s late wife (victim of a bike accident) was an ardent supporter of the Earth Liberation Front.
He sees his dead wife (for example, trampoline-ing), and converses a lot with his wife about his concerns around their son Chum, who lives through his computer (playing games, and potentially being a hacker – he received a visit from the Feds when he was twelve!).
Gil is also writing a book on John Muir, a Civil War environmentalist and draft dodger, who was assisted back to health by his wife’s great-great-aunt, but has been hit by a combination of writer’s block, and technical problems with his computer. Gil has lost the manuscript, but segments float back into his memory, which gives a good backstory.
In parallel, we see Chum and Amanda, with Chum inventing a Vampire-based video game called Phantom Vampire, and Amanda realising potential profits from it.
Gil received a USD four hundred thousand payout related to his wife’s death, but his lawyer Benny stole it.
We see that Gil retired from psychoanalysis for two years, but then decided to visit Doyle, a former client who was a star in “Yosemite Yahoos”, a reality TV show.
The visits from/to Doyle spark the book to life, as there was a lot of scene-setting up to this point.
Doyle “kidnaps” Gil (having paid off the receptionist, of the home where he is staying, to look the other way for a while). The two characters have their own reasons for heading west – Gil as part of the John Muir/get Benny scenario, Doyle to get an audition that will relaunch his career.
The road trip, from Bloomington Indiana to LA in California, is made by planes, trains and automobiles, with various characters from their pasts alternately helping, hindering and hounding them.
The story ends in California, but each of the characters goes through some level of self-awareness and a type of coming of age, as they muddle through their lives, relationships and scenarios.
What I Liked
The descriptive prose e.g. Miss Gaul [was] still afflicted with Irritable Face Syndrome. The book is littered with these funny, perceptive and eminently quotable one-liners.
What I Didn’t Like
It was hard to get into the writing style, as it bounced around and was distracting at times.
There were a multitude of stories, books-within-books, games-within-books which for me didn’t work.
This is a satire, and once you get used to the approach Muir Woods Or Bust is a fun read. Satire is hard to write, and is not necessarily universally understood, for sometimes you may need to be closer (culturally, societally) to the issues being satirised in order for it to work, and I think that this may be somewhat of the case here. It was hard for me to get going in it, and it may be somewhat of an acquired taste. I would recommend it, because the destination is worth the journey!
Thanks to the author who provided a free copy, in return for an objective review.
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