Editor’s Pick: 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev

Angela Rodel, tr. Open Letter Books, 2013

18& Gray by Zachary Karabashliev“I believe that the longer I keep the shutter open the more life gets captured on the negative.”

Bulgarian-born novelist and playwright Zachary Karabashliev entertains and surprises in his debut novel, 18% Gray, with a protagonist of his own namesake—Zack—whose heedless personality is comically blunt, often boorish, and yet passionate all in a matter of moments. Encountered through the unabashed thoughts of our narrator, the story follows Zack coping with the sudden disappearance of his wife, Stella, in a quest that turns him loose on a journey across the United States with an unpredictably acquired stash of marijuana and a vintage Nikon camera.

Karabashliev’s talent in creating a complex and darkly entertaining protagonist makes it an enticing story to follow. The novel paces smoothly with brief flashbacks to Zack and his wife’s budding relationship, which ignited in Bulgaria, to create an interesting procession. He creates a thirst for answers behind Zack and Stella’s relationship and individuality while also amplifying a curiosity for what will happen when the brazen, wily narrator ultimately makes it to his final destination, New York City.

Striking a familiar chord with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the protagonist travels on an experiential journey across the U.S. via the often beatnik-associated Route 66. The story gains a uniquely purposeful momentum for Zack when he begins photographing America along his journey. His images are raw and honest and tell a story no postcard would ever attempt. “The mud-splattered truck bed, the cloud of dust, the red stop lights, the cowboy hat, the American flag, the street named ‘Hope,’ the mailboxes, the intersection, and the hand grabbing the fat pile of mail put all of this together.” Through the photographs of checkout clerks in empty rural towns and distant wildfires blazing into California, Karabashliev’s narrator recaptures his lost love for photography while he simultaneously escapes the pain of love lost. Between the romance and adventure, the author layers a wonderful homage to the storytelling power of photography and the bond that connects photographer and camera: 

I open the window, holding the steering wheel with my left hand and pressing the shutter with my right. I know that the chrome throat of the tunnel will stay light gray, I know how the brake lights of the vehicles ahead of me will look—like curly red lines in the middle of the picture—the fluorescent lights under the roof will leave two diagonal white streaks that will converge in the middle to form a Y in the center of the rectangular frame. I know how this photograph will look, so why do I take it? 

Zachary Karabashliev brings us into the heart and mind of this unpredictable character and his many unanswered questions through photography, love, and a wildly reckless adventure.

Jen Rickard
Digital Media Editor

Jen Rickard Blair is the art and web director at World Literature Today.