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Ghost Writer

  Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road
Neil Peart
ECW Press, 2002
Rating: 4.0

Posted: September 15, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the long-enduring progressive rock band Rush, seemed to have it all. In 1996 and 1997 the band had embarked on an extensive tour that Peart, a notorious perfectionist, believed to be the personal and professional high point of his life. He enjoyed enough material wealth to travel the world and to maintain two homes in his native Canada. And, of course, he had a supportive and close-knit family: his common-law wife, Jackie, and 19-year-old daughter Selena.

But all of that changed with startling abruptness. On a night in August, 1997, Peart and his wife received news that Selena, to whom they'd bid goodbye earlier that day as she headed for college, had died in an auto accident. As emotionally shattering an event as it was, it spelled only the beginning for Peart, whose wife sunk immediately into a deep depression and withdrew into a shell of her former self before learning a few months later that she suffered from a terminal form of cancer. Within less than a year, she was gone as well, leaving an emotionally destitute Peart at loose ends, with no interest in resuming his former life as a musician, increasing financial concerns and only the barest flicker of the survival instinct, manifested chiefly in his decision to load up a motorcycle (a BMW R1100GS, for those keeping track) and hit the road for points unknown, hoping that simple motion would help to outdistance a crushing and deadly sense of grief and loss.

Ghost Rider is Peart's own account, then, of his many travels, crisscrossing much of Canada and the continental U.S. and dipping into Mexico as well, with no clear itinerary. It's an engrossing and moving (no pun intended) document of those travels, as well as the gradual piecing-together of Peart's own life, starting with the battered foundation of his "little baby soul." That infant part of Peart's fractured psyche proves only one of many "personalities" that spring up in the course of the book, including, of course, the "Ghost Rider," a distant loner whose only purpose is to keep moving.

As mere travelogue, it's surprisingly engaging: Peart writes in a comfortable and candid style (familiar to those who've read his previous book, The Masked Rider -- a recount of his bicycle travels through Africa -- or his essays in Rush's tour programs), and offers interesting historical bon mots as he goes.

But as a personal travelogue, Ghost Rider is both captivating and painful, notable for its unself-conscious detailing of Peart's naked grief and attendant disconnection from the rest of the world. This emotional journey, necessarily and irretrievably intermingled with the physical one, is the book's true center, largely recounted in Peart's voluminous correspondence with his friends and loved ones -- most notably his best friend and frequent traveling companion, Brutus. (In a further twist of cruel fate, Brutus is serving time for a drug-related offense during Neil's travels, further underlining -- along with the death of the family dog -- his sense of loss and disconnection. While this set of circumstances undoubtedly made Peart's road harder, its serendipitous benefit to Ghost Rider can't be underplayed: his frank and compelling letters to Brutus form both the book's backbone and its heart.)

In fact, one of Ghost Rider's many revelations is that of Neil Peart, rock and roll drummer, as a veritable man of letters: his correspondence (at least the bits of it reprinted here) is staggering in its output and its richness -- every letter we read proves thoughtful and forthright in its emotional candor. As standoffish as he often comes across -- and Ghost Rider reveals an understandable, if disappointing, ambivalence toward Peart's fans (most references to whom involve the discomfort of being recognized and accounts of dashing from the venue the second a Rush show ends) -- Peart is disarmingly unafraid to lean heavily on his loved ones, his letters brimming with warts-and-all glimpses of his emotional makeup. In fact, the private and reclusive Peart pulls no punches in sharing the depths of his pain, including his bitterness at the seemingly perfect and happy lives of complete strangers and his bemused and somewhat contemptuous references to his former self -- "the fool I used to be." (That reference to a Rush lyric is but one of many -- in a move that could come across as self-indulgent in lesser hands, Peart bookends each chapter with relevant quotes from his songs.)

Ghost Rider's ending is never in doubt -- after a brief, awkward romantic interlude, an acquaintance he meets while palling around with ex-Kids in the Hall member Dave Foley and the creators of South Park in Los Angeles, Peart eventually recovers enough to fall in love again, remarry, and ultimately embark on not only the book but a new Rush album and tour as well. But if informed readers already know much of the outcome, Ghost Rider proves an absorbing read, a fascinating (if, at 460 pages, hefty) account of one man's determined quest to overcome devastating and unimaginable tragedy and rebuild himself in the process.

Related Links:

Rush: Vapor Trails

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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