Many thanks to ECW Press for sending a copy of Waiting For The Man by Arjun Basu. This novel was unlike anything I had encountered in the past, and I have to say that its creative premise rang true for me on several levels.
The story line sounds simple enough. In Waiting For The Man, a very successful 35-year old advertising copywriter leaves his jet-set lifestyle in New York to find some answers. What spurs him on this quest is a mysterious stranger who would emerge before him with what appeared to be the intention of delivering a special, life-altering message. This “Man” would appear in random places, but never on a set schedule. Only Joe could see him. Believing that this “Man” held the answers to all of life’s questions, Joe leaves everything behind and starts a journey that turns into something reminiscent of a 3-ring circus.
The trick of Waiting For The Man is that Joe’s quest for answers inadvertently turns him into a media sensation. He winds up with a devout following who hang on his every word, his every movement, even the things he eats. Recall the running scenes in the film Forrest Gump (Paramount Pictures, 1994), where that gaggle of people follow Forrest all over the place, keeping step behind him, waiting for him to divulge incredible life lessons? Think that, but instead of running, Joe is often parked on a stoop. Not only does he wind up with a massive following in person, but he becomes a social media magnet, a newspaper’s dream come true, and an exquisite source of television sound bites. He somehow gets food sponsors. When the Man tells him to “go West,” he receives a sponsored minivan. No one can get enough of him, including one reporter who winds up running the entire “campaign” from Joe’s new apartment. Joe has not asked for any of this, and he would prefer to continue with his humble existence (his new job is essentially a “fruit peeler” at a restaurant), alone. He’s just waiting for directions from the Man. Can’t everyone just leave him be?
But this is what happens, isn’t it? We’re drawn to people who are brave enough to pursue the truth. Since few of us would have the gumption to leave our lives to discover the meaning of life, the next best thing would be to live vicariously through someone who would. The lack of privacy that Joe winds up suffering from is part of that journey. Welcome to the never ending party of reality television. If Joe likes something, so do we. Joe is on the cusp of answers for all of us, so I guess we should wear the same brand of pants.
The wit behind this story is that the Man could be anyone. The message that the Man might deliver could be anything. And while I found myself occasionally weary of Joe’s dialogues, Joe’s plodding, and Joe’s direction (I also desperately wanted him to take a shower – he pretty much gave that up as well), the intent behind all of it did not escape me. We are all waiting for the Man. We are all waiting for meaning, purpose and enlightenment.
Something about the look on the reporters’ faces made me want to lay it on thick. “Something profound is happening. Something amazing is going to happen. Something of a transcendent nature. I just don’t know what that something is.” (205)
At the same time, Joe was well aware that he was a media gold mine. His dry sense of humor and wry impatience for all of it will not be lost on the reader. He becomes a celebrity despite his attempts to avoid it. More interestingly, Joe becomes a brand. He becomes exactly what he left behind: a marketing opportunity. Will he finally be able to hear the all-encompassing message from the Man while throngs of people sit in his wake?
Waiting For The Man requires a little patience from the reader. If you’re looking for a page-burner, this may not be your best choice. There may be times when Joe’s journey will seem mired in its own quest for meaning. There may be times when it seems a little endless, and at the close of the book, you may wonder what just happened. I do think that that there were portions of the novel that could have been encapsulated a little more succinctly, but that’s not to say that this story isn’t worth your time. It is. The truth is that I have nothing but respect for an author who believes that his readers are wise enough to understand a message that doesn’t leap from the pages like a bolt of lightening. This book is far more subtle. In other words, what you glean from this particular novel is entirely up to you.
3.5 stars for Waiting For The Man.