In Search of Captain Zero is Allan C Weisbecker‘s second novel, and a considerably different work from the first gonzo/physics/pot smuggling affair, Cosmic Banditos.
He used to be an Internet sensation. Back in 1989 (ish) he wrote his first novel – Cosmic Banditos – a riotous tale of quantum physics and marijuana smuggling. It didn’t sell in either the US or the UK and, in a fit of generosity, the author sent all of his copies to the soldiers on active duty in the first Gulf War. Slowly but surely it got read, got passed around and eventually turned into a cult classic. Here in the UK it hit the remainder book shops and got picked up by students and the like who again read it and passed it round, turning it into a cult here as well.
At the same time, as legend had it, he disappeared, apparently disillusioned with the lack of success of his novel, leaving no way to be contacted to discuss reprints when they suddenly became required. This left a whole raft of readers who had read the book once, lent it to someone and never seen it again; desperate to find another copy. So desperate in fact that copies were going for stupid sums on ebay and some people had actually converted the entire text of the novel to HTML. Like The KLF’s The Manual or Albert Hoffman’s My Problem Child it was easier to get hold of an A4 printout than a real copy of the book.
The story of In Search of Captain Zero is inextricably linked to the mythology that had built up around Weisbecker. It is written as an autobiography, filling in the missing years from the original failure of Cosmic Banditos to his return and the publication of this novel.
It was with a real sense of expectation that I opened Captain Zero. I’d read Cosmic Banditos in 1991, one of the many brief owners of the few copies that circulated, and again upon its republication in 2001 so I was pretty excited to have his new book in my hand….
In fact my enjoyment of Cosmic Banditos tainted my first attempt at reading it. This is why I’m writing a review in 2005 of a book that I bought in hardback in 2001. When I first got it I opened it up, read the first chapter and thought “what a bust.” It was nothing like the previous book. All serious and worthy and deep in mid life crisis. No pot smuggling, no physics; even the dog wasn’t funny. So I put it back on the shelf and went on to something else. It was only when a good few years had passed and I was scouring the shelves for something that I hadn’t read that I decided that I should try it again – it had cost me ï¿½16 after all – I shouldn’t just leave it there.
So with a fresh mind, not expecting pot smuggling or quantum physics or Mexican gangsters or comedy dogs, I set about reading Captain Zero properly…
It begins as a story of a man in crisis. Written in a wholly believable first person the narrator tells of his failed novel and many failed relationships and pines for his life as a young man in the 60s when surfing was king and he was in on the ground floor. Mid-life crisis has finally hit and for him the sports car and younger woman turns out to be instead a mad quest down the coastline of Mexico in a ramshackle motor home looking for a long lost friend (Christopher Connor, the Captain Zero of the title) last heard of surfing the waves somewhere down South.
As the journey develops so does the narrative – slowly we are introduced to 3 strands that will remain throughout the book. The story of the road trip itself is gloriously detailed, providing a loving travelogue of the surf routes around the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast of Central America intertwined with a detective story as he seeks out Christopher. At the same time we are treated to reminiscences of his youth with Christopher, spent living the high life as professional surf dudes and part time pot smugglers. These are wickedly funny stories, laugh out loud tales of stupid boat trips and ridiculous plans hatched in a fug of marijuana smoke. But. These two strands play supporting roles to the real meat of the book. This is really a book about surfing. About loving to surf more than anything else. About how surfing makes you feel. About the long board versus the short board. About Johnny-come-latelies versus the live-to-surfs. About sport versus lifestyle.
I can’t really let you into much of the plot without ruining the story, but suffice to say that there are Mexican gangsters, there is pot smuggling and yes, the dog does turn out to be funny. It surpasses Cosmic Banditos with ease, which is no mean feat.
This is an exquisite book. It’s the best book I’ve read this year and it’s put me off reading anything else for a while. It was really that good. It was one of those books that I found myself making time to read – not because of a page turning plot but because the insight into Allan’s character and why of life is so all encompassing, so beautifully written and most importantly so welcoming that I did not want to leave the world that the book created. It’s in turns hilarious, tragic, moving and empowering; yet it’s also completely daft and unreal.
I highly recommend you read this. I also recommend you read Cosmic Banditos, and that you sign up to get his irregular newsletters from Down South. He’s a joy to read.