The best thing about Adams' fourth Hitchhikers' novel is that it is markedly better than the third one — and in fact it is the first of these books to bear a resemblance to an actual novel rather than a compendium of wacky sketches. However, though it's awfully good at times, it doesn't really recapture the delirious zaniness of the first two novels or of the original radio show, which makes the back cover blurbs by the likes of Time ("The looniest of the lot!") and the LA Herald Examiner ("Wacky, loony, and zany!") extremely puzzling. What book did these guys read? The book I read is actually quite low-key and even sedate in its approach to cosmic comedy. It's not that it doesn't work — it does — but anyone expecting a rehash of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe had better be aware that the series changes significantly with this novel.
Adams, it seems, is growing up; he hasn't lost his sense of the absurd, it's just mellowed a little with the wisdom of age, you might say. And thankfully he has shaken off the cynical edge prevalent in Life, the Universe and Everything. Some fans of the series dislike this novel particularly because of the change in tone, but I think Adams shows a new side of himself, and a good side at that; it's good to see he wasn't a one-dimensional jokester, doomed to degenerating into a pale shadow of a once-great wit.
Years after becoming an unwitting space traveller, Arthur Dent finds himself back on — Earth! Yes, much to his amazement, it would seem that our beloved homeworld was not destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass after all. Arthur manages to pick up his old life pretty much right where he left it off, although he does have to dispose of eight years' accumulated junk mail and a lot of spoiled food in his fridge. Upon his return he also chances to meet a young girl named Fenchurch, with whom he immediately senses he has some kind of inexplicable bond. (Adams' stories thrive upon the inexplicable, in case you hadn't noticed.)
Arthur and Fenchurch fall hopelessly in love, and that's what this novel, for the most part, is: their love story. Adams, naturally, doesn't get all gooey and sappy about it. There's a wonderful sense of Adamsian whimsy all throughout the tale, which actually makes the romance genuinely heartwarming and utterly believable as these two (literally) starcrossed lovers try to make sense of their lives, and figure out what, if anything, may have happened to the Earth eight years ago. Was it indeed just some sort of mass hallucination, or is there some strange secret known only to a madman living on a California beach. (Adams' exposure to the U.S. following the success of this series informs a lot of his satire this time.) And where did all the dolphins go, by the way?
Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian don't appear at all. And Ford Prefect is barely a bit player, as is Marvin, both of them not really putting in an appearance until the tail end, when Adams finally brings his story back to its kooky interstellar setting. Some readers might find the ending cryptic, depressing, uplifting, or some bizarre combination of all three, but it wouldn't be a Hitchhikers' novel if Adams spelled everything out for you clearly, now, would it? So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish may not be the funniest of these unique books, but in many ways, it's the warmest and most human. For a humorist who specializes in the nonhuman, inhuman, trans-human, semi-human, and anything-but-human, that's really quite an achievement.