Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #19: The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams


There’s always a moment when you start to fall out of love, whether it’s with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it’s one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again.

– Douglas Adams.

Until I happened upon the “order of service for his memorial” in the back, it didn’t register that, by reading this, I really would be “hitchhiking the galaxy one last time.” For the following couple minutes, I experienced something I never have before, not on account of a book. Though I would learn, through reading The Salmon of Doubt, that Adams published a few works of non-fiction I’d not been privy to, this was it as far as his fiction was concerned, a realization that brought me closer to tears than the written word ever had.

Now, as I write this, I feel that same sick, sinking feeling returning and it’s making it a challenge to find the proper words. Adams, as I’ve pointed out in past reviews, joins Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut in what I lovingly refer to as my Holy Trinity. Together, that trio shaped me into the reader I am today. I pick up a book and, whether it’s a conscious act or not, I begin to draw comparisons between it and their work. I think of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, for instance, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with an apocalyptic flair to it.

Of the three, though, Adams arguably has had the most profound impact. Without my sister introducing me to him by way of the “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” number from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), it’s doubtful my tastes would’ve evolved to where they are today. Watching the movie, and later reading the book, was a revelation, thrusting me wide-eyed into the arena which houses humor of the dry and British variety.

From there, I was turned on to movies such as Death at a Funeral(2007) and others of that ilk, and before long it’d become one of my favorite brands of humor. Along the way, I also believe, though I’m not sure, that I discovered Vonnegut thanks in part to Adams, who listed Vonnegut as one of his influences. The man who, in spite of his smoking habit, “the only honorable for of suicide” as he put it, outlived Adams by six years. It’s the darkest of ironies, yet one I could imagine both appreciating.

If there is an afterlife, it’s a safe bet that the two are bonding over their mutual surprise. Further, if I could call anyone from the afterlife to loiter in a restaurant with, hardly touching my food for fear of drowning out a moment with the pesky sound of chewing, Adams and Vonnegut would be who I’d chose, without question. The two of them would be sure to get along so swimmingly that I’d be content to merely listen, no bothersome questions, as are usually the status quo in this imaginary scenario, necessary.

Maybe I’d ask Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman along to chronicle our ghostly meet and greet. One day I’ll learn to lucid dream and this, not sex, is what I’ll dream of first. Because, between the uncertainty that there is an afterlife and the difficulty one would have convincing Pratchett and Gaiman to bear witness to and chronicle what must sound like drug-induced delusions, it happening for real is a mathematical impossibility. I’d sooner find Gaiman lounging in my falafel. Wait, I’ll be right back. I need to try out falafel and see if it has such magical properties.

I regret to inform you, dearest reader, it does not. Notice I use the singular, since splurging for the plural would be a bit overly ambitious of me, wouldn’t it? Continuing on, Adams could speak on any matter and have my attention, which is why I’m admittedly not the best judge of a book such as The Salmon of Doubt. Collected within its pages are all the odds and ends the publishers could find. With Adams, that translates to a lot of odds and not very many ends. That is to say, the pieces it contains are amusing yet also, even to a fan such as myself, aimless.

At one point during the proceedings, Adams mentions attempts to cover up that not every aspect of a story of his fit together snugly, and what’s on offer in The Salmon of Doubt are random bits that clearly have not received the same treatment. Many, one can tell, were culled from publications Adams contributed to, but that doesn’t make them anymore focused. From them, to the unfinished novel that gives this collection its name, everything is about what one would expect from a posthumous collection of a writer’s work. It aims to form a cohesive whole, but instead manages something with a distinctly cobbled-together feel.

This is no more apparent than in the capper of it all, the story that couldn’t decide which series it wanted to be a part of, Dirk Gently or The Hitchhiker’s Guide, the eponymous and unfinished novel The Salmon of Doubt. Pieced together from a number of different drafts written at varying stages of development, it shows. It’s said that the process mostly involved them cherry-picking the best bits and slapping them together in as coherent a fashion as was possible, and the end result is a story that seems to phase in and out as if it were Adams’ ghost itself.

One paragraph, it’ll have you lamenting what could’ve been, the next you wish it had gone the way of Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. and been taken from its embryonic state and given life by someone else’s trusted hands, such as the aforementioned duo of Pratchett and Gaiman. I understand that filling in the blanks of an unfinished story and going forward with the film adaptation of someone else’s story that the person in question never got to see through to the end are two vastly different situations, but you can’t deny it would make for a fascinating experiment.

What we’re given, however, is still worth reading for the Adams devotee. The Salmon of Doubt might not be Adams’ finest hour from a pure writing standpoint, yet it rewards its readers with a bittersweet look into Adams’ too brief life. Through his novels, one gets to know Adams, the author; through this book, one becomes familiar with Adams, the person.

If he and his work are of no interest to you, The Salmon of Doubt has little on offer for you. But if you’re like me and wish you had the power to summon his ghost over for dinner just to hear him talk, about anything really, this is likely as close as you’re going to get, so savor it.

Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.