There are several things going on here ranging from the finding yourself type tale, the I want to write something but what should I write story and a pure old fashioned love story. The fact that they are intertwined and done so with great humour and a brilliant sense of location makes this the interesting read it ends up being.
The central axis of the book is the friendship between English teacher Nolan Kennedy and his erratic friend Don Darius. They met in Istanbul, where the story starts with Kennedy drifting along struggling with his own writing but determined to get the work of his friend published. Darius has left a manuscript that Kennedy thinks is a work of genius and he sets off to track his friend down in Eastern Europe to convince him that it should be edited and published.
Darius turns out to be a friendly chap who has a love of vodka and a less than enthusiastic relationship with writing suffering from bouts of indifference and lack of confidence. Plus he is on a mission to find the woman he glimpsed on a journey and fell in love with. Tracking her down involves heading off on the Laikonik Express into the snow covered streets of Poland and into a world that is strange and fuzzy as the vodka numbs the senses but creates a platform to develop friendships.
Kennedy is living life through his hopes for his friend and by the conclusion of the love story it is his own tale of traveling and his own doomed relationship with a Chinese girl that seems not only to match that of Darius but to overtake it in terms of literary value. He just hasn't seen it yet in his idolization of his friend.
Love might not blossom like the movies but the chance for it to find a way drives the narrative and for a while gives both friends a sense of purpose. Once that has lifted the harder challenge of working out what to do with life emerges as something that Kennedy at least seems to be aware he must face.
The description of small Polish villages, out of the way bars and the rail network in Eastern Europe are all delivered expertly from someone who has clearly spent some time in that part of the world. The experience of writing and the challenge of finding a subject is also something you suspect that the author has wrestled with but with this coming of realisation story about love, friendship, booze and literature he has been able to deliver a narrative that draws you in and keeps you going.