Reviewed here: The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean, by Philip Caputo (Henry Holt and Co., 320 pages, $32); Granta 124: Travel, edited by John Freeman (Granta Books, 256 pages, $19.95)
Travelling in Burma in 1951, English writer Norman Lewis came upon an island monastery, near the village of Kyaukmyaung, where at one time the Buddhist monks kept fish as pets. They fed them by hand and, to the delight of tourists, they would coax them to the surface of the Irrawaddy River and stick patches of gold leaf on their heads as an act of charity: Fish, they believed, lived at the bottom rung of the reincarnation ladder and could use all the karma they could get their fins on.
Soon, the tourists figured out that the tame fish were also delicious fish, ridiculously easy to catch. They were eaten close to extinction. But the monks fought back. They built elaborate canals from the harbour to a tank in the monastery, "and the fish," Lewis writes in his book Golden Earth, "were trained upon a danger signal given vocally or by the beating of the banks, to swim up into the monastery enclosure, where the good men stood guard over them, cudgel in hand."
It's odd to read Golden Earth now and root for the monks (and the fish), knowing that, in the end, the tourists will triumph. There are now few corners of the planet that can't be reached, virtually or literally. You can book a cruise of the Irrawaddy online. Google Map images of Kyaukmyaung are available on the smartphone, and foursquare.com has user reviews of the village ("So many young people here," writes one giddy traveller. "Good for sightseeing if you're a guy.")
We live in a connected world, and the connections are commercial: Your destination, whether you go there or just dream of it, is revealed in its Starbucks and Motel 6 options, TripAdvisor ratings. No wonder Lonely Planet, the best-selling publisher of travel guides, is downsizing: 80 out of 400 staff positions were "made redundant" this summer. Books can't compete with social media and at-your-fingertips crowdsourcing.
So it's not enough, as Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark and Bruce Chatwin once did, to treat travel as a literary muse, to discover the undiscovered and report back. It has been done: Every square inch of dry earth is accounted for and has already been visited by liberal-arts students in Arc'teryx fleece. Modern travel writing wants more: value-added, a gimmick, and, if possible, an emphasis on the writer's inner journey, not so much the scene that greets him when he gets off the train. It's a literature of anxiety and commercial panic: Will a trip to Bali help me get over my divorce and fall in love and find the pedicure that will change my life forever and sell this book?
Norman Lewis was known as the semi-invisible man because he had a reputation for disappearing into the background. Friends said that when he went to social events, you never knew he was there until you noticed that he had already left. He travelled the world, from Latin America to Asia, from Italy to the Catalan coast of Spain, not as the tourist who demands to be entertained and changed, but as the humble guest, relying on his own silence to better hear those around him. He travelled light and ate what was put in front of him even if it was still moving.
In Burma, he met a deposed prince and princess, living, as he said, in "reduced circumstances." They sat side by side in broken chairs, attended to by a pair of cheroot-smoking servants who "dropped into a comfortable kneeling position and awaited the royal commands with the benevolent patience of spaniels. Occasionally the interpreter [one of the servants] leaned forward, took the cheroot out of his mouth, grasped the end of the Prince's ear-trumpet, and bawled a translation of my remarks into it."
There's very little glamour in a Lewis book, and it's all received with an Englishman's reserve: I'm here, just go about your business. Why did he travel? He had an inkling that the world was changing in the postwar years, that culture was going global, that Western commerce was colonizing the quietest corners where princes and princesses who once knew thrones now sat on broken chairs. He owed it to the record to see those places before they changed altogether, to protect them in writing. This was his job. In other words, it wasn't about him.
And the world did change. It shrank. Adventure writing changed too, shifting its focus from the travel to the traveller. We got books like Tony Hawks's Round Ireland With A Fridge which is just what it says on the cover: on a bet, Tony Hawks hitchhikes around Ireland, with a fridge. The tension in the story comes from the cockeyed quest: will he make it to Dublin? This is travel writing that invents its own obstacles and then overcomes them: it's designed like a video game, with built-in Levels of Difficulty.
Tony and the fridge go surfing. It's good fun, a game well played, but it's busy with manufactured drama, and lacks the stillness and patience of a Norman Lewis story. Flying into Hanoi in The World The World, his memoir, Lewis watches from the airplane window: "A huge swamp, shining green lamp-light up at us," he writes, "turned away with mechanical smoothness, and was invaded by a purple segment of sea. A chessboard of fields drifted into sight with a minute ivory pagoda like a chess-piece waiting to be moved." It's the landscape that moves, not the airplane. This is a typical Lewis scene: the writer knows enough to hold his breath and let the world follow its own cryptic course around him. He's small, the world is big. In much of the travel literature that came after Norman Lewis, the roles are swapped.
This July the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo released The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean (it is impossible to put out a non-fiction book without the colon and subtitle, which hints at Levels of Difficulty.) Caputo cooks up a plan to drive from the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. to the last paved road in Alaska to figure out, by interviewing people along the way, what it is that holds the country together. As an older man, he's also confronting his own mortality. And his dog's mortality. He has two, which he brings on the trip, one of whom is also old and requires special attention. First his wife isn't coming, then she is. He rents an Airstream trailer and has trouble with the sewage hookup which requires a rubber hammer to fix. It's a story of mortality, and family, and what holds America together, and a road trip, and sewage trouble.
Given the piling in of motivations and obstacles and fridge-substitutes, both literal and spiritual, The Longest Read is a good yarn and Caputo is an honest writer. The people he meets are genuine, if a bit flummoxed by the whole mission. The aphorisms pop out of them like Nerf bullets and land just as softly: "I travelled around the world, but I always say this is the country where I want to live," a Cuban emigre tells the author, "because the freedom we have here, you know, we never have that freedom in other countries... There is crisis, I know, economic crisis, but the United States is the best country in the world. I think so." It's a hopeful book that, in the end, struggles to carry and feed its own premise.
Is it possible to just show up somewhere and pay attention and write about it, the way Norman Lewis did? Not if you want a book deal. In Lewis's day he'd have lunch with his publisher in London and announce he was going to Guatemala, and that was that.
Then they'd both order a sherry. Now the writer needs a business plan that accounts for a world already well-traveled and over-documented. Paddling up the Nahanni River? No thanks, unless you're juggling chainsaws and coming to terms with an absentee father at the same time.
But that's commerce, and even commerce sometimes shrugs and lets a bit of art sneak by. In the Summer 2013 issue of Granta, the American novelist Teju Cole goes back to his home country of Nigeria and, in the fashion of Norman Lewis, stands back, breathes, watches and listens. He sees a man nearly drown trying to rescue his car from the incoming tide. He's robbed at gunpoint, loses his laptop. It's a quiet but tense story about violence that's close enough to touch, but it's also a story of Nigeria at its best: the music, the food, the talent for daily life under thunderclouds. There are no contrived Levels of Difficulty except those that emerge on their own, without the author's help, and no major appliances are carried. This is old-school travel writing that requires, first and foremost, a writer.
Modern travel writing needs to calm down. In The World The World, Norman Lewis meets a young man in Pondicherry, India, who can sum up the impulse to travel in a line: "I'm looking for the people who have always been there," he says, "and belong to the places where they live." In other words: it's not about you, the writer, or your narrative scaffolding, but about who you haven't met yet: a deaf prince, a fish-training Buddhist monk. Let the reader share in the surprises and accidents. You can't feed the impulse to travel on Google Maps or TripAdvisor, which, despite their reach and user-friendliness, still remain blind to the most human detail. Just pack a pencil and go.
Tom Jokinen lives in Ottawa and is the author of Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training.