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BOOK REVIEW

A story of life on the run runs on too long

Shantaram, By Gregory David Roberts, St. Martin’s, 936 pp., $24.95

"I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum-security prison," says Lin, Gregory David Roberts's hero, on the first page of "Shantaram." "When I escaped from that prison . . . I became my country's most wanted man. Luck ran with me and flew with me across the world to India, where I joined the Bombay mafia. I worked as a gunrunner, a smuggler, and a counterfeiter. I was chained on three continents, beaten, stabbed, and starved. I went to war. I ran into the enemy guns. And I survived, while other men around me died."

The other guys were lucky. The sad truth is that there's little more to be gained by reading the remaining 935 pages. Lin's brutal trek through Afghanistan and its bloody ending turn out to be just another in a shapeless collection of action episodes, strung together by macho ruminations about the nature of love, trust, courage, and, of course, freedom.

On the lam from a maximum-security prison in Australia (where he was jailed after a string of armed robberies he conducted to support a heroin habit), Lin lands in India in what appears to be the early 1980s. There he brokers drug deals for tourists, hooks up with the Bombay mafia while doing a voluntary stint as a sort of barefoot doctor in one of the city's slums, leaves for better housing and a promising career as a broker of counterfeit passports and visas, runs guns to Afghanistan, returns briefly to heroin addiction, starts a talent agency with another former junkie whom he's rescued from a vicious madam -- even appears as an extra in a few Bollywood musicals. And why not, when the protagonist is, by his own account, "the most dangerous and fascinating animal in the world: a brave, hard man, without a plan."

Along the way, he loves, hates, mourns, and forgives a succession of one-dimensional characters, each of whom he repeatedly defines by a single physical characteristic (green eyes for Karla, yellow eyes for Khaderbai, a cowboy hat for Vikrim, a big smile perpetually illuminating the face of Prubaker, etc.). These shorthand descriptions are augmented by metaphors that are not just bad, but bizarre. Of Khaderbai, the philosophically inclined father figure and Bombay mafia don, Roberts writes, "The hole in my life that a father should've filled was a prairie of longing. In the loneliest hours of those hunted years, I wandered there, as hungry for a father's love as a cellblock full of sentenced men in the last hour of New Year's Eve." As for Lin's love interest, Karla, "the green of warm, shallow water in a dreamed lagoon blazed in her eyes." A blazing lagoon? Of course, Lin's peepers are pretty dangerous, too, as when "the spiteful cat of wounded pride arched behind my eyes." And if you don't think that's painful, try this: "The same fate that helped me to escape from prison had clamped its claws on my future. Sooner or later, if they looked hard enough and long enough, the people would see those claws in my eyes." Ouch.

It's a shame, because if a good editor had taken Lin's dagger to this book and pared it down from a bloated autobiography masquerading as a novel to a 150-page travel book, "Shantaram" would have been worth reading. When Roberts simply and straightforwardly shows us Bombay, the love about which he endlessly pontificates is actually evident.

Take this first impression of the city: "The contrast between the familiar and the exceptional was everywhere around me. A bullock cart was drawn up beside a modern sports car at a traffic signal. A man squatted to relieve himself behind the discreet shelter of a satellite dish. An electric forklift truck was being used to unload goods from an ancient wooden cart with wooden wheels. The impression was of a plodding, indefatigable, and distant past that had crashed intact, through barriers of time, into its own future."

Roberts's descriptions of Bombay's vast slums are informative and infused with a heartfelt appreciation of the spirit of its dwellers. He offers insights into daily life that only an assimilated immigrant can -- observations about folk remedies, the extra-legal system of justice, the music and dance that infuse daily life, the nature of work among the lower castes.

The story of "Shantaram" is the story of Roberts's own life. He really did break out of a maximum-security prison in Australia, travel the world, become fluent in several Indian dialects, get captured and returned to jail, only to be victimized by sadistic prison guards who twice destroyed the first 300 pages of his manuscript.

Alas, each painful rewrite apparently did little to help this tireless and committed author hone his skills. But then maybe he didn't need to. Come 2005, the movie of "Shantaram" will go into production. I can imagine the pitch -- " 'Fear Factor' goes Bollywood." It's a natural.

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