There’s nothing like a loooong plane ride trapped in the middle seat between two sleeping seatmates to make you pray to the heavens that you have a good book to keep you occupied. Fortunately for me, I was reading The Ridiculous Race. Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran have written a travelogue that reads like the love child between Bill Bryson‘s work and the ouevre of Will Farrell.
[Random book-buying note: If you purchase this book, write down the name somewhere. I went to buy it at the nearest Barnes & Noble, armed with nothing but the memory of good reviews from Entertainment Weekly and People magazine. “It’s titled something like ‘The Amazing Race,’ except that it’s not that name, obviously,” I told the woman at the help desk, when I did not see it displayed in the new books display. She proceeded to type in “The Amazing Race” and unsurprisingly did not come up with the book.
“Try just typing ‘race’ in the Title filter,” I suggested. She gave me a withering look and told me that such a search would elicit about 1.75 million responses. “Even if you narrowed the search to the last two months?”
Ooooh. She hadn’t thought of that. She tried what I suggested and immediately the name of the book came up. Learn from my mistakes. Unless you want the Barnes & Noble lady to look at you like you too are a moron, remember the name of the book.]
The set-up is simple: Steve and Vali, in a drunken fit of brilliance, decided that they should race to see who could circumnavigate the globe first using any mode of transportation except airplanes. The fact that one of them brazenly cheats on this primary rule almost from the get-go detracts from none of the enjoyment of the book – it in fact makes it funnier. The boys (for it is not possible to write of them as anything but boys) have an impressive humor pedigree: Hely writes for the cartoon comedy American Dad! and Chandrasekaran writes for the oft-cartoonish My Name is Earl.
And the book is very, very funny. For example, Vali goes to see a show in Egypt whose headliner is the most famous belly dancer in Egypt. He writes:
Two cute Japanese girls on vacation sat nearby. I shifted the position of my chair to make sure they could see me.
VALI: WHAT I WAS AIMING FOR
I took a long drag off my cigarette before resting it on the edge of the ashtray. Then I swirled the cheapest scotch on the nightclub’s menu around in my tumbler before taking a contemplative sip. Ahh life, I thought.
“I notice you were sitting alone, writing in a notebook.” I looked up to find the cuter of the Japanese girls. She licked her lips and continued, “Do you have some sort of book deal?”
VALI: WHAT ENDED UP HAPPENING
The Japanese girls giggled like Japanese girls in movies do as the Important Arab Guy, who by then had started drinking the most expensive scotch on the nightclub menu, charmingly teased them, then invited them to sit at his table.
I continued drinking alone.
There is also a scene with Steve in China that rivals anything the makers of South Park have ever come up with. I almost woke my seatmates up, I was laughing so hard.
But what takes the book to another level, and saves it from being a cute throwaway, is that often without your noticing it, the boys manage to have an insight about a place, or their experience, that is both grown-up and maybe even a little deep. Whether Vali is commenting on how his race has affected the race, or Steve is commenting on how the United States is like the prettiest girl in high school, you start thinking that there might have been something to this race other than an expensive prank, that maybe they have been changed. Then again, maybe not.