Saturday, July 9, 2011

Book Review: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do

Dual disclaimer: First, author Amy Snyder was kind enough to provide li'l ol' me with a review copy of the above-linked book for nothing other than the promise of a review -- which won't influence the review, but there you have it. Second, as with any other Amazon link you find spamming up these pages, when you go to Amazon from here and buy stuff, I get a minor penance in return. There. I've said my Hail Marys. 

Hell on Two Wheels is the kind of book that makes me mad as a writer. Why? Because I'm annoyed I didn't think to write it first. It comes ready-made with all the elements you need to tell a ripping yarn: a compressed timeline (with plenty of flashback/exposition opportunities), a cast of fascinating characters, and a litany of physical/emotional challenges designed to push those characters beyond the breaking point. When I was in my graduate writing program, this is the sort of story that you had to call dibs on lest someone else in the tiny literary shark tank grab it first. 

HoTW is the story of the Race Across America, a.k.a. RAAM. This mildly insane competition starts a group of foolhardy souls and their almost-equally-nuts crews on the west coast of the U.S. and tells them to get to the other coast as fast as possible, sleep and common sense be damned. The fastest riders do this in about nine days (see "compressed timeline" above). Think about that. Nine days from coast to coast on a bicycle. Hell, think about doing that in a car. Along the way, they encounter hallucinations from sleep deprivation, saddle sores that would make mortals weep, and neck muscles exhausted to the point that they literally can no longer hold up the weight of the rider's head -- a horror-movie-worthy condition called Shermer's Neck after the first poor bastard unlucky enough to suffer it on RAAM.

So given this literary/journalistic goldmine, I'm not the least bit surprised that Amy Snyder has produced a fascinating book. It starts a bit slow as she takes great pains to contextualize RAAM for a general, non-bike-nerd audience. In the early chapters, I found myself saying, "Okay, okay, we get it, RAAM is way harder than the Tour de France." That may be my own biases popping up, though -- if one more person asks me, "So, you ride a bike... what do you think of this whole Lance Armstrong doping thing?" I may have to garotte that person with a LiveStrong bracelet.

Once the race starts, Snyder finishes trying to put into perspective something that really can't be put into any sane perspective, and things really start moving. There are no domestiques here, no forgotten pack fodder; sure, there's an epic (copyright Rapha) battle at the front between Jure Robic and Dani Wyss for the eventual win, but everyone on the course gets the respect they deserve whether they struggle in days later or DNF in agony. It's the story of the race in its entirety, not the winners. As the contest spread out across the country, my respect for Snyder's work only grew. After all, she's covering a story that never stops moving and spans a large chunk of a continent, while most likely running on empty in the sleep-tank herself. Quite a feat on a chessboard that big with that many pieces. Heck, I'd be interested to read a book about the writing of this book -- although that could be my postmodern, meta-literature geekiness showing.

So, Amy Snyder, I tip my protective styrofoam yarmulke to you, and award you the coveted "Things That Don't Suck" keyword. I may not be able to imagine riding RAAM or even trying to follow it, but after reading Hell on Two Wheels, I don't have to (thank goodness). I feel like I've been there already.

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