After Tom Rachman published his debut novel ‘The Imperfectionists’ (2010), it was described as “not a novel in the conventional sense,” but “a series of short stories, slice-of-life accounts of dysfunctional journalists working on an international English-language daily in Rome.” By the end of the book the reader knows a lot about a team of fictional journalists and their dysfunctional lives. Rachman is good at bringing his characters to life around their work, their private lives, and the headline stories they chase.
One evening while at dinner with some Western trekkers recently, I wondered if there was potential for a similar book about characters I have met on trek. “What-the-hay,” I told myself, “give it a whirl,” and began jotting notes. It was a start. Novelizing them could come later, I thought.
For starters, take ‘Mary’, an obsessive individualist who obstinately refused to stay with the rest of the group and single-mindedly charged off each day to be first into camp miles and hours ahead of everyone else. And, ‘Ralph’, an absent-minded scientist, slow and consistently last into camp. He was also an obsessive chocoholic who salivated at the sound of candy bars being ripped open for a quick energy snack. Yes, he’d forgotten to bring his own. And, yes, the rest of us hid ours’ from him.
A ‘foodie’ named ‘Phil’ was a hoarder. This tall, gangly misfit, a retired physics professor, was typically first to the lunch stop spread out by our Sherpas beside the trail where, when no one was looking, he would fill (‘Phil’!) his daypack with more cheese and crackers than he could possibly eat, leaving little for the stragglers who arrived late. Guards were posted.
Then there was an elderly ‘crack-head’ named ‘Carl’, who had clearly blown his mind on drugs years before during his hippie days. His reality was all too often at odds and ours’, and his weird and wonderful proclamations and incessant and untimely ‘off-the-wall’ (bizarre) questions challenged our collective patience.
By the way, to avoid any ‘defamation-of-character’ lawsuits, the true identities of these stranger-than-life personalities shall remain undisclosed. Except for ‘John’. That’s his real name, but since it’s one of the most common in the English language and he’d be over 110 years old now if still living (unlikely), I’ll use it. I could not invent a better moniker to match his behavior, obsessed as he was with his daily business ‘on the john’. For trek that year our agent gave us the option of having tables with fancy cutlery and, if we liked, a plastic toilet seat on folding aluminum legs for our personal comfort... The other trekkers refused them all. They could sit on the ground to eat, they said, and they knew how to squat in the woods. But not John, who insisted on having the collapsible commode.
It puzzled the Sherpas that John was the only one to use it. When they heard that American slang for toilet is ‘john’ they laughed uproariously. But John’s ‘johning’ behavior wasn’t funny. While he assiduously avoided voiding in view of us, he had no compunction against unfolding the contraption for a bare-bottom sit-down out in an open field in full view of the locals.
I led that trek, and when I discovered his public misdeeds I was furious and let him know that his actions were unacceptable! Enter ‘Betty’ who at the height of my indignation poured a tumbler full of Scotch and ordered: “Drink it, Gus! – You need it!” Bless her soul. I downed the elixir in a gulp, while dear John folded the commode contraption and retreated meekly (sort of) to his tent.
Now who among the porters do you suppose carried the portable potty pew? The kitchen boy, of course, on top of all of the camp’s other plastic and aluminum gear—the cooking pots. To everyone’s dismay.