By Eamon McGrath
Constant acceleration may be the gateway pace to spiritual illumination, but it’s also an eventual route to physical burnout. Hooked on (and hanging on for dear life) to that Beat Generation tradition, Eamon
McGrath relates a rabid hobo quest for experience in Berlin—Warszawa Express.
Instead of poets bumming from Times Square to New Orleans or into the mountains of the North Cascades National Park, McGrath gives us indie punk grebos stumbling through Eastern Europe – and mainly Berlin to Warsaw. (The titular Berlin-Warszawa Express is a cross-border train route that, well, goes between Berlin and Warsaw in about 6.5 hours.) The scraggly milieu that McGrath travel-logs about (in what is a fictionalized account of the indie-rocker’s own touring life with his band and as a solo act) is a sub-culture that is ravenous for new experience but never satisfied with what it hunts down. The novel has a frenzied narrative to match, with McGrath burning from one gig to the next, one bar to the next, and one country to the next, with an insatiable appetite for fresh encounters.
Like the best work of the early Beat writers, the narrative action here is grounded in – or ungrounded
with – that constant need for movement. But McGrath’s prose is neither a big Kerouacean religious
meditation on transience, nor a deliberative John Clellon Holmes-like study of art and popular culture. It
is a sleek and efficient account that greases his thoughts and keeps them rolling at maximum speed along with the geography of the journey.
And, to McGrath, everything may ultimately be just about the journey for the sake of the journey, with
no transcendence available. Even when he returns home at one point to undertake a mini-tour through
Canada, he realizes that “all I could think about was how much I wanted to return to Europe.” While
McGrath never defines what he is looking for past the searching itself, that conundrum gives him pause for
consideration. At one point, encountering a “punishingly loud three-piece free jazz band from Warsaw playing at a breakneck volume” and drowned in this tsunami of sound, he experiences his own satori:
Amid this cacophony, I knew that I was in a place where no time existed. I was a prisoner of my own chains, I had lived my life trapped by confines that I had created. True freedom existed somewhere and at this point in my life, in Berlin, I was as close to it as I would ever be, or at least had ever been. All this would fade to memory in seconds, but there was something that felt so violently everlasting in that big, circling noise.
Along with music, booze is a key driver here – a travelling partner, a fuel, but also as great a risk to the
body as restlessness may be to the soul. A hangover leaves McGrath feeing pinned down with “the
familiar feeling of weight…It’s like all your thoughts are pained and clogged, and goop flows through your existence – the kind of viscous, molasses hangover where everything is slow. Then we got on the train and we went to Austria.” The artificial joy is both a stimulant to the journey and an entropic drag.
Still, McGrath continues to offer the reader beauty with the ruin, as the rush of the poetry of his language mimics that restless, relentless travel:
Cars race by on the Gürtel, laughing drunk brutes come and go from the doorway of Thaliastrasse U-Bahn station, and as we hear the hum of Vienna rise up in a soothing roar, Esteban and I both laugh and drink and know that amid all this trash and unhindered humanity is something beautiful that could only be birthed by the mother that is the tender
warm hands of the night.
The quest for new experience is certainly a Sisyphean journey for McGrath – but it’s also a thrill ride for