A self-published novel about a good-natured stoner is a phrase that is not necessarily a good omen. When the story takes place in large part in Lithuania, a country appearing in a novel that won the National Book Award a few years back, you might wonder what you're in for. Yet while Gint Aras self-published, this tale of a Chicago-area stoner who heads off to Lithuania in search of a gorgeous woman he met in a laundromat rises above the level of many so-called
vanity press print-on-demand novels.
Andrew Nowak tells his story in the first person using a vernacular that reflects his upbringing and education. Andy doesn't quite have a dark cloud continually over his head but his life also isn't one scripted by Horatio Alger. Living in Berwyn, Illinois ("If you lost your beer gut, probably someone in Berwyn picked it up and never even noticed"), Andy's father ran off, his mother is overbearing and a bit of an alcoholic, his sister's become a meth addict and his grandmother spends her time sitting in a chair in the home she shares with Andy's mother watching TV and sipping hot tea with a thimble of Scotch.
Twenty-year-old Andy has escaped to his own apartment but, to make ends meet, he sells some pot here and there. When he goes to meet a customer at an area laundromat, he runs into Audra, a beautiful older blonde who offers him $1,000 to do her a favor – which turns out to be going to her home and having sex. She's a Lithuanian married to an American man, who Andy discovers just happens to be the customer Andy was supposed to meet.
Audra later looks Andy up and they begin spending time together. Andy becomes infatuated with her but, with no forewarning, she suddenly heads back to Lithuania. Andy can't get his mind off Audra and it doesn't take him long to sell everything he owns and buy a one way ticket to Vilnius, Lithuania. Without realizing it, Andy has embarked on a journey of self-discovery. Within days of arrival, Andy is basically homeless and realizes that "Vilnius ain't no Lord of the Rings no more… now it's nasty gray and crumbled." Yet he meets and makes friends with Lithuanians his own age in a bar, eventually meets up with Audra, slowly picks up a smidgen of Lithuanian and spends much of his time drinking and using pot or harder drugs, basically dependent on the kindness of strangers who have become his friends.
At times, Finding the Moon in Sugar tends to wander a bit and there is explicit sexuality that may put off some readers. Generally, though, Andy is an affable, undereducated character adrift in the world but who is rapidly discovering an entirely new and different one. Andy's vernacular and humorous observations of even seemingly routine things makes for an enjoyable read. Yet the comic aspect balances an ultimately sad, if not tragic, tale.
Audra's return to her home seems to accelerate a spiraling psychological deterioration. And about the time Andy realizes he must return home he falls in love again. When he does depart, his girlfriend ultimately follows him and they settle in Indiana, where Andy strives hard to take up a more normal life. At least one of the novel's dénouements, involving Andy's grandfather and his death in the Vietnam War, seems a bit strained and almost an unnecessary digression. The ultimate resolution to one of the core emotional conflicts is not surprising but is handled quite well.
Like many self-published books, Finding the Moon in Sugar does not rise to the level of those handled by larger publishing houses and their editors. Still, Aras exceeds the expectations the story outline might create, providing a readable and enjoyable look at a search for meaning in life by someone who doesn't quite realize he's searching.