"Shantaram" by David Gregory Roberts St. Martin's, 944 pp., $24. 95 If ever it could be said of a book that it was conceived in W. B. Yeats' "foul rag and bone shop of the heart,"...

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by David Gregory Roberts

St. Martin’s, 944 pp., $24.95

If ever it could be said of a book that it was conceived in W.B. Yeats’ “foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” this is the book. It is a huge (944 pages), messy, over-the-top irresistible shaggy-dog story — and most of it is true.

David Gregory Roberts calls “Shantaram” a novel, but it is strongly autobiographical, concentrating on his life in Bombay from 1981 to 1987. Some characters have been disguised or blended, but he insists that the key events are authentic. It is overstuffed with adventures, people, events, prison stays, good deeds, criminal acts, prose that is so bad it’s embarrassing and passages so poignant they make you sniffle. It is the perfect picaresque novel: the saga of a rascally hero living by his wits in a poor and corrupt society.

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Shantaram is the Hindu name Indian villagers give Lin, the narrator: It means “man of God’s peace.” Lin — or Linbaba, as he is also known — was not always worthy of the name.

Roberts’ life story is chock-full of wrong turns, starting with heroin addiction when his marriage foundered and he lost custody of his daughter. He supported his habit with a string of armed robberies, got caught and sentenced to 19 years in prison, served two years, escaped and headed for Europe. He got sidetracked in Bombay and stayed for seven years — and that’s where the story begins.

Lin meets two people very soon after his arrival: Prabaker, a Bombay street guide who becomes his loyal friend, and Karla, a beautiful and enigmatic Swiss-American woman with whom he falls in love. Prabaker takes Lin to his home village for a visit, and they end up staying for six months, after which they return to Bombay and settle in a slum where Lin sets up a clinic. Knowing little more than first aid, he hooks up with the local mafia and trades medicine for favors. The mafia connection eventually leads to money laundering and forged passports, and Lin goes to prison again. Following his release, revelations about his acquaintances come to light, guerrilla fighting in Afghanistan against the Russians is on the agenda, and the beat goes on for this big-hearted, up-for-anything wandering philosopher.

And this is just the beginning. It is the middle of a trilogy; prequel and sequel to follow. Start doing arm lifts now.