Title: The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World… Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes
Author: Carl Hoffman
Genre: Literary Journalism
Acquired: Received from the publisher for review.
One Sentence Summary: The subtitle sort of says it all — journalist Carl Hoffman traveled across the world taking the most dangerous conveyances he could find to see what it’s like to travel outside the developed world.
One Sentence Review: Hoffman’s book could have been a journalistic stunt, but straddles the line carefully and delivers a melancholy and moving memoir dressed up like an adventure tale.
Why I Read It: I love travel books, and this one caught my eye because it looked like something different from the norm.
Long Review: As I was traveling out of town for the 4th of July holiday, I had Carl Hoffman’s The Lunatic Express in my head, and not just because of how many friends I’ve recommended the book to in real life. The book stuck with me because of how appreciative it makes me to live in an area of the world where I can get to the places I need (and want) to go while only having to worry about how I’ll pay for gas or if I’ll get lost. I certainly never worry that I’ll be killed, even in the worst of winter driving conditions.
For most of the globe, this simply isn’t true, and those are the stories that Hoffman is trying to tell. In the first chapter of The Lunatic Express, Hoffman sums up his quest like this:
For most of human history, travel, after all, was an arduous necessity. The word itself comes from the French travailler — to toil or labor, reflecting the difficulty of going anywhere in the Middle Ages. … Today, however, we think of travel as a joy-seeking, the pursuit of pleasure, a vacation, and tourism is the largest industry on earth, generating $500 billion a year in revenue. But tourism is a relatively new phenomenon, barely 300 years old. As a journalist who frequently ended up in some of the world’s oddest corners and crevices, I gradually began to realize that the big numbers of today’s tourism industry obscured a parallel reality, excluded a whole river of people on the move. It excluded, in fact, most of the world’s travelers, for whom travel was still a punishing, unpredictable, and sometimes deadly work of travail.
And deadly it is. Hoffman’s journey takes him from the United States to South America, over to Africa, then up and through Asia before heading home. Before each chapter, Hoffman shares a report of an accident from that region that constantly reminds the reader what the book is actually about — forty-five people killed when a passenger bus fell into a ravine in Peru, 840 people drowned when a ferry sank off the coast of Indonesia, or a young girl who lost both her legs after being pushed off a crowded passenger train in India.
But even with those statistics, there’s a fine line between serious journalist inquiry and a stunt to sell books, and in concept this book could be either. There are a couple of ways in which Hoffman leans towards journalism and away from stunt (but not entirely) that I think are significant.
First, he never loses track of the fact that even if he’s taking these modes of travel he’s still a white American and that privilege follows him around. He consistently notes ways in which he is guided, protected, and sheltered from what is truly the worst of these experiences. In fact, he gets through the quest relatively unharmed — a feat I have to admit I wasn’t always confident would happen.
Second, the book maintains a sense of humanity and melancholy that a stunt book would have ignored. Although Hoffman doesn’t get to the core of why he took on this project until about two-thirds of the way through, the emotional depth that his longing (and the source of that longing, which won’t share for fear of spoilers) kept the book from feeling “stunty” to me.
Hoffman also devotes a lot of space to anecdotes about the people he meets when he travels. Ever person has a story, and Hoffman is generous with them, while not being overly sentimental or condescending. Their stories probably do more to illuminate what its like to travel when its incredibly dangerous even more than Hoffman’s experience does.
I’ve recommended this book to at least five different people since I started reading it because I think it straddles the line between nonfiction and adventure so well. There’s something terrifying and appealing about Hoffman’s journey, and that combination creates a book that can be about traveling to find adventure, but is more about traveling to find yourself.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!