I finally got around to it.
I’ve had The Masked Rider by Neil Peart on my bookshelf for several years now. It was purchased more as a way to complete the “Neil Peart Collection” of books rather than to read, though eventually the plan was to read it.
That plan jumped off the book shelf a week ago. I looked at it, looked at it and said “Why not?” Let’s read it before we get too far down the road in life and it becomes harder to read. The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa is 20 years old and recounts a story nearly three decades old.
I find it perhaps eerie to read a true story that occurred so long ago. Peart is in his mind-30s and reading about others in a present tense sort of way but who are now 30 years older brings on a touch of gloominess. Elsa, the oldest of the traveling companions is approaching 90 now if not passed already. And, you know eventually Peart’s likely to mention his wife and daughter, and he does, who have also since passed.
I remember this book sold during the Test for Echo tour and I did not want to become one of those fans. Gobble everything up Rush even that which has a minor scent of the band. Besides, while I was sure about Mr. Peart’s ability as a lyricist I wasn’t sure about his prose as an author.
The front cover also turned me off, it’s not exactly attractive, and the idea of reading a book about someone else traveling by bicycle across West Africa was also a wall. It sounded, well, boring.
Was I wrong.
So why now? Someone once told me you know you’re a writer because you have to write. That’s how this blog started. OK, but the book is two decades old! That’s the beauty of the Internet: the ability to provide emotional feedback, on a timeless wavelength that can bear gifts and is, for now, still free. Heck I can always back date it and make it look like I reviewed this in the following months of the book’s release but that would be a question of my honesty. Yes, my honesty.
Enough of the opening color and on to the book.
Procrastination also arrived after reading Mr. Peart’s other books. Their magnet included a more up-to-date feel and more relevant to what I wanted to read therefore they got first billing. After digesting them it was clear the author indeed enjoys writing his thoughts on paper. Perhaps a bit too much. While I mostly enjoyed all of them, at times they could be a bit verbose, sometimes offering innocuous details that failed to move the narrative forward.
However, I couldn’t put The Masked Rider down. In fact, I finished it three weeks ahead of my mental schedule.
It is a delightful read and comes across as a fictional novel full of adventures and colorful characters. Plus, any book that makes you feel smarter as you turn the pages certainly counts for something.
Peart offers vivid details of the African landscape, peppering the book with splashy words (some of which I had to look up!) and recounts interactions with his riding group and the natives like a seasoned reporter.
As his frustrations mount and at times boil over – he brings you there. You feel the assault on his skin color, the rising pulse during border interrogations and the grumblings in his lower intestines. No, he doesn’t paper over what happens afterwards, either. Well, he actually might but still writes about it.
Why Peart ever ventured on this adventure perhaps is another book or maybe just a novella. It’s primitive living, to say the least, and the “guide” if you can call David that, wings it, or at least that’s what it feels like. The party of five often ride alone, sometimes even an hour or two spaced apart so if feels less like a touring group and more like mere acquaintances getting from Point A to Point Z via the same route. It begs the question why anyone would bike ride, much less bike ride alone, in an ostensibly lawless country. The hotel “accommodations” make crashing on your buddy’s couch in a musty basement for a month look like the Four Seasons.
If you’ve not read this book you’ll learn Rush nearly came to an end in 1988 if not, quite possibly, for Leonard, the black American in the traveling class who “saved” Peart’s white skin from a gun wielding, drunk and belligerent military official. If not for the perceived fellow countryman, how Peart would have escaped that encounter probably crosses his mind every now and then.
Even without the assault rifle toting commando who could have gunned down the drummer of Rush without so much of a shoulder shrug much less a murder trial, learning how Peart and the rest of his clan manage to get out not only mostly unabated but unhurt keeps the pages rolling.
Refreshingly, Peart is not PC in his assessment of Africa. Of course, that new religion was probably in its infancy in the 80s and just starting to gain steam in the 90s when the book hit shelves, but what is published is published. Visiting Africa, much less traveling by bike, is not for the faint of heart. At least back then, maybe things have changed in 30 years, but doubtful. Based on this book, I don’t care to find out first-hand.
What’s more, Peart does not sanitize the characters central to the story. In many respects, The Masked Rider also serves as a catharsis for Peart to release some pent up annoyance and resentment on the power hungry authorities he encounters, the sometimes irritating natives and the selfishness of his fellow riders. Really, Elsa, not even an apology after accidentally kicking Peart as he dozed off during an afternoon nap? That’s just one illustration.
Peart also airs own dirt laundry, interjecting personal reflections throughout the book, at times recognizing his own shortcomings and insecurities. Additionally, this book “introduces” you to the person that is Neil Peart, at least in the mid-80s. He intersperses his opinions and beliefs and the “argument” scene with his fellow riders not only is a pivotal moment in the book that decidedly ends any chance of post-trip friendships, but provides a chance to cheer on the percussionist, assuming you too tire of bitter Westerners trashing their homeland in favor of more oppressive regimes romanced by domestic media.
When you’re not learning the lay of the land, getting to know Peart’s riding companions or soaking in African food and culture, you get a bit of history and some explanation of why things are the way things are. It’s a different way of life on the African continent and you wonder why the people seem content living in squalor.
Then you’re just happy everyone gets to their final destination, safe and sound, and as Peart relishes in western living to close the book, you too feel a sense of peace, harmony and thankfulness for running water, air-conditioning, clean plumbing that works and the freedom to walk, bike or drive anywhere you choose without the looming presence of armed guards demanding your papers.