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Book Review

‘The Answer to the Riddle Is Me’ by David Stuart Maclean

Wisdom to be gleaned from David Stuart Maclean: Save anything remotely official-looking with your name on it. You never know when you’re going to need evidence.

For Maclean, who found himself standing in a train station in India one day in 2002 with no sense of who he was or why he was there, documentation took on a more urgent function than mere tax-audit armament. It became like strewn bread crumbs that would open up a path back to himself.

Chronicling his journey from memory loss to self-rediscovery in a breezily anecdotal memoir “The Answer to the Riddle Is Me,” Maclean provides the reader with photocopies of prescriptions, doctor’s invoices, and even an ambulance bill, as if to say, “I’m not making this stuff up, people.”

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Initially pegged by Indian police as just another western tourist on a bum doping spree, Maclean was actually reeling from the antimalarial drug Larium, which, taken prior to a Fulbright-funded trip to Hyderabad to conduct research for a planned novel, launched him on a bamboozling gantlet of reactions that read like a parody of a prescription-drug warning label: hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, seizures, homicidal thoughts, paranoia, nightmares, religious delusions (God is Jim Henson), and antagonistic behaviors his mother cogently termed “angry strange.”

As Maclean sums up his recovery, during which he smoked enough cigarettes and drank enough liquor to stock a duty-free shop, “I felt like I was a step away from erasure at every moment.”

Aided by beneficent strangers in India, his parents in Ohio, a New Mexico shrink, and an ever-accumulating trail of girlfriends, Maclean returned to his parents’ home and began reassembling the jigsaw puzzle of his lost identity from a jumble of memories that reawakened randomly like “scraps of evidence with no sense of the criminal they pertained to, or the crime.”

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The whiff of malefaction, as well as Maclean’s decision to shore up his story with a validating paper trail, take on greater weight as the author comes to terms with his past transgressions. Kindly speaking, he was a prankster, a “goofy, self-deprecating loudmouth who preferred to say outlandish things rather than attempt real conversation.”

“I have a long record of screwing up group portraits,” concedes Maclean, who, in his student journalism days, reviewed an album by a made-up band, then embroidered the lie through dissembling missives to a befuddled college activities director trying to book the group for a school festival. Fecklessness and cheating riddled his history with women, earning him the sobriquet of “equal opportunity jackass” from his mother, who exhibits a blood technician’s gift for locating the jugular.

To judge from Maclean’s brittle self-analysis, rendered in squib-like chapters as short as five lines, the apple appears to have fallen close to the maternal tree. After tapping into our pity for his exotic predicament, the author all but dares us to find his actions, pre-and-post-Larium, sympathetic.

That we ultimately choose to cut him slack is a direct result of Maclean’s candor, which prods us to wonder how we would weather the worthiness test were we to stumble through a pharmaceutically-warped looking glass and be compelled to stare back at our own reflection.

Such is the nature of the offending drug that it’s often difficult to sort out when the medicine is talking to us or the author’s reflexive self-deprecation. When Maclean defaces a photo of himself his father had intended for his mother, his dad protests, “It was a nice picture of you, David. God forbid she should have one nice picture of you.” So goes “The Answer to the Riddle Is Me,” which starts out as the story of a bad drug trip, then quietly morphs into a study of a man who revels in subverting his own best images.

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Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at jan.stuart7@gmail.com