Saturday, December 21, 2013

Driving with Douglas Adams

About this time twenty-six years ago, I was making my annual ten-hour drive from Indiana to Virginia to visit my parents for Christmas. After Christmas, I drove north on I-95, through Baltimore and New York City to Connecticut—a terrible drive, especially in winter. But I didn't mind, because I was going to see the woman I loved. We had been seeing each other for a little over a year—that is, as much as two people who lived 750 miles apart could see each other. I was nervous, because on this particular New Year's Eve, I was planning to ask her to marry me.

I won't keep you in suspense. She said "yes."

When it came time to leave, I was not looking forward to the long, lonely drive back to Indiana. I took comfort from the thought that, by the end of the year, Loretta and I would be married, and I would never have to make that long, lonely drive again. I also took comfort from the lovely parting gift Loretta had given me: an audio book to make the miles go by more quickly. The book was Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, written and read by Douglas Adams. I knew who Douglas Adams was, of course. I was a great fan of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I had not heard of Dirk Gently, but I was intrigued by the description on the cover: "THE FIRST EVER FULLY REALIZED GHOST-HORROR-DETECTIVE-WHODUNIT-TIME-TRAVEL-ROMANTIC-MUSICAL-COMEDY-EPIC."

Once I was headed west on the interstate, I popped the first tape into the cassette player. (Back in those days, kiddies, there were no iPods or MP3's. Audio books came on cassette tape, and the only audio option a car had besides a radio was a cassette player. If you were lucky, it played both sides of the cassette without your having to turn it over!) A cultured, slightly nasal English voice issued from the car stereo. "High on a rocky promontory sat an Electric Monk on a bored horse," it said.

"An Electric Monk?" Certain that I had heard incorrectly, I was about to back up the tape and play it again, when the phrase was repeated:

The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.

Unfortunately this Electric Monk had developed a fault, and had started to believe all kinds of things, more or less at random. It was even beginning to believe things they'd have difficulty believing in Salt Lake City.

After that, the story got really weird, with an "impossible" magic trick, a ghost, a famous 19th century romantic poet, aliens, and a time machine.

A time machine?

As a long-time Whovian, I recognized recycled plot elements from two Doctor Who stories written by Adams: "City of Death" and the famously lost "Shada," which never aired due to a strike at the BBC. However, those plot elements were imaginatively combined into something completely new and unique. And while the character of Dirk Gently may have borne a superficial resemblance to Tom Baker's Doctor (both had a child-like curiosity and a penchant for hats that were "a remarkable rather than entirely successful piece of personal decoration"), he was clearly the illegitimate literary offspring of Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes.*

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency never became the hit Hitchhiker's Guide did, but it did inspire a very good sequel (The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul), a radio adaptation, and a television series. It also made several hours of my long, lonely drive much more bearable, and nearly caused me to miss several exits.

I recently purchased the Kindle version, and I look forward to reading it. Of course, it won't be the same as having it read to me by Douglas Adams, and someday—perhaps on my next long (but not lonely) drive with Loretta—I hope to listen to the cassettes again. Of course, I will first need to find a working cassette player.

Or a time machine.

*"Sherlock Holmes observed that once you have eliminated the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible."

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