MY YOUNGEST BOY IS A TALKER, a characteristic accentuated by caffeine. We made this discovery one August afternoon at a party when he fell upon an unattended Mountain Dew, but that is straying from my point. My point is that reading Mo’s book is like listening to my son on caffeine.
The book jumps a lot. Mo ricochets through his experiences in Thailand, the US, Vietnam, Belize, and Mexico to name a few as easily as my son jams Pokemon, Legos, and Yu-gi-oh into one sentence. This guy has been around, and he is out to share all his Kodak moments.
The problem is that these snapshots are erratic. No prepared slideshow. Not even the same roll stored in the same flimsy envelope. It’s as if Mo invited us to his apartment for a drink and weed (trust me, its chez Mo) and dumped out a shoebox of photos on the shag rug. “Oh yeah, here’s a good one,” Mo would say, and launch into a tale that may or may not be interesting, but will probably have little to do with, unless serendipitously, the next picture.
Which is exactly as Mo wants it. I carried this image of Mo and me picking through his memories from the first chapter, and lo and behold on the second to last page he writes:
. . . I have my own talismans’: the Outward Bound badge from Kilimanjaro; my Buddha amulet from Nguyen; a T-shirt with the flags of all countries; Hendrix’s “Little Wings” inside my head; a world calendar marked with holidays from all cultures; photo albums of friends and places, jumbled up purposefully to keep reminding me of the whole world and not just a particular place or person. (reviewer’s italics)
I find this A.D.D. timeline jarring, though it is tempered a bit by the fact that we are not attached to his characters. There is no character development. Everybody, regardless of importance, is given equal billing. I assume Mo is closer to his family and girlfriends, but they are scarcely more developed than a taxi driver, roommates, and concert drug buddies. I assume that Mo wants us to care; he just doesn’t set us up to care. He tells us that he was “nearly inseparable” from Nguyen a boy in a refugee camp and refers to him as his figurative “son,” yet we spend only a couple of pages with him. I want to know more about Nguyen, just as later I’m left wanting to know more about Mo’s girlfriend Pranee and her heroic efforts in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand.
What is supposed to link most of these characters is their “chameleon hearts.” They are all lost souls in one sense or another. Mo, of course, is the lead chameleon. Will Mo ever find happiness? Will he ever find a place to call home? Or will he shed all those confining labels, and find he belongs to the world? Well, this was written by an RPCV, so you know the answer. It is an apt analogy, if over done. The book stumbles into other clichés, most of which need to be thrown away like an over-exposed photograph. I will spare you the sordid details of his sexploit with the German love goddess Uta, except to quote Mo: “We made different musical sounds that night.” Ouch. And later, “I became the clown, generating laughs as a ploy to hide my pain” then, in Bangkok, along came educated Pranee, ”the best of all nurses, to mend this wounded chameleon’s heart.”
What frustrates me most is the book’s potential. Mo has had fascinating experiences. He lived under Idi Amin’s rule and was made a refugee by the tyrant, and he survived the tsunamis in Thailand by heaving himself onto a passing log. His work in refugee camps is gripping. This is great stuff and I am left wanting more.
Without a doubt, the fourth chapter is the best, for the very reason that Mo stays focused. We are permitted to get to know a place (Uganda) and people (his family) to a greater degree than any other chapter. I wish he had started the book here. This is where Mo is at his best:
Only when you have suddenly lost the everyday world you live in, do you truly appreciate what you loved about it so much. Once gone forever, memories come back in sudden flashes or fragments that haunt you. So it was with Uganda and me.
How much stronger the tale if he had used this chapter as a template throughout. How much better the book if Mo had picked through his photos and put his best Kodak moments into labeled albums. Or better yet, if Mo had examined why these photos mean so much to him, delved into the best he had, and permitted us to feel in depth the places and persons that have been so profound to him.
John Bidwell is founder and principal of Bidwell ID (www.bidwellid.com), a strategic branding and visual communications firm. He is also the editor of Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali, written by his wife Kris Holloway. Outdoors, he runs and hikes. Indoors, he writes and tidies up. He lives in Western Massachusetts with Kris and their two boys.