On the Road to Nowhere

It is in the dead heart of winter, when spring seems unlikely and summer almost mythical, that travel writers become a necessity. Maybe you won't make it out of your plowed-in driveway, but you can pretend you're going places. Publishers understand that need. Pumping out travelogues in January and February, they know that the glimpse of anyplace else is a necessity for readers, the sensual proof that life still exists somewhere beyond the snow drifts.Whether the travelogue still satisfies that need, though, is a different question. How have things changed? Take a look, for starters, at Paul Theroux's The Pillars of Hercules, recently released in paper. A trip around the Mediterranean Basin, Pillars is vintage Theroux, which means it's really a trip around the post-Freudian basin of his own rattled head. What is interesting is the way he struggles to deny that. Always pretending to look at the passing scenery, he occasionally manages a quick snapshot: "Mallorca looked elegant from the sea."But mostly his foreign countries are only a metaphor, the grim echo of his own depression, and the impressive depth of that depression is enough to drag even the Mediterranean down with it, so that Italy, Morocco and Istanbul all wind up looking like leprous pit stops. In the end Theroux only finds his doppelganger, cities like Catania, which is "big and grim, the sort of place only a mafioso would tolerate.... The coast here was miles of great ugliness, oil storage depots, refineries...and cement factories." Our snowdrifts, by comparison, look cozy.Theroux's voyage of the damned could even pass for sad poetry if the writer wasn't the dean of modern travel writers, and in some ways their sadsack muse. What makes Pillar so utterly dispiriting is the way it foreshadows the year's other travel books. In his own solipsistic manner, in fact, Theroux sets the self- involved tone of most current travelogues.That's why even the best of this season's getaway books only let you get as far as their author's own obsessions. Travel writing, of course, was never objective. Imposing their worldview on foreign places, even classic writers like Henry James, M.F.K. Fisher and Jan Morris mostly found what they wanted. Fisher's universe is an edible one (the sound you always hear is her grumbling stomach), and both James and Morris' travels are infused by a homoeroticism that neither could quite contain. Still, they all had the decency to at least look around them and take notes. Not anymore. The traveler's gaze has turned inward. Their view keeps getting obstructed by their own compulsions, until the only sight they see is something purely personal.This egotism takes two forms, and is visible everywhere on bookshelves this winter. The first form is the fantasia inspired by Peter Mayle, whose A Year in Provence set sales records. The Mayle look-alikes that are now as common (and already as dated) as the Macarena all feature a writer who claims to be broke but is still mysteriously capable of buying an English manor house, Tuscan cottage, Provencal farmstead, Dutch houseboat or Greek taverna. Somehow, despite those money problems, the author in question always manages to get a deal on Umbrian marble and Lebanese cedar so the house of choice isn't just shored up but transformed into a Trumpish showpiece. Plots may vary but the genre always includes slightly crazed native workmen (the latest incarnation of the semi-noble savage) and, more important, lots of picnics involving truffle oil, grilled fish, homegrown tomatoes (the best they ever tasted) and crusty baguettes.What makes this genre so insidious is its sleight of hand. The form's ostensible attraction is an up-close-and- personal view of a foreign place. These travel writers, after all, aren't just passing through but settling down. What they promise is the intimate, insider's sense of their adopted home.For the most part, though, what they offer is something very different. Take this season's most blatant incarnation of the homesteading travelogue -- Frances Mayes' prototypically titled Under the Tuscan Sun. An American professor of creative writing, Mayes buys an abandoned villa in the Tuscan countryside, just outside the medieval town of Cortona. In part a record of her slice of scenic heaven, Sun does provide a distracted view of local life, but its tone is essentially distant until it turns to its real passion: the construction of the author's own relentlessly chic good life. The first few descriptions of that life are infectious:"We...sit by the fireplace, grilling slabs of bread and oil, pour a young Chianti.... I cook a pan of small eels fried with garlic and sage. Under the fig where two cats curl, we're cool."But after a while the glossy poetry turns redundant, and Mayes' descriptions start to read like a stylish tic. The olive trees and Tuscan pots filled with lemons and vases stuffed with poppies, the terrace fringed by a tangle of roses and the garden tumbling with blackberries and vines, the blood oranges and roast pigeons and antique armoires and espadrilles and marble floors accumulate with such fierce fecundity that you start to hope for a little genuine bad taste, or a small disaster -- a white peach that isn't juicy, a bud that doesn't bloom, an alfresco dinner that gets rained out. The small-minded may even start fantasizing about a fire that guts the villa and forces Mayes to take shelter at a trailer camp where she will have to eat a really greasy double Whopper and a Dairy Queen Dilly Bar.That, of course, isn't going to happen. What Tuscan Sun is really about is resolutely good taste and the accumulation of things. Owing more to Martha Stewart than Edith Wharton, its construction of a dream life grows suffocating, and its bourgeoisie self-regard is enough to turn the most apolitical reader into a Stalinist. In the end, the book is a study in greed, and part of that greed is the writer's need to impose herself on a place. Real travelers know you stay anonymous and leave no trace, that you can't really observe a place unless you remain invisible. Mayes' Italy, though, just gets reduced to another emblem of her infallible taste, and her whole confection finally seems as self-absorbed as Theroux's neurasthenic trips.Other recent versions of the homemaker's school of travel writing each comes salvaged by some small saving grace. In Ann Barry's At Home in France, the tone is understated. Much less compulsive about her pastoral nest than Mayes, Barry allows a wider view of the countryside (in this case rural Dordogne). In the end, though, her sightseeing is so desultory, and her observations so bland, that France becomes the last thing you'd expect: actually unremarkable.In Edmund White's Our Paris, the writing is much sharper and the elegiac mood moving. Observing the city from his Parisian flat, and remembering the last year with his seriously ill partner, he evokes a bittersweet world. Yet the book's beauty has less to do with Paris than the moment before a life turns, when every shared pleasure wears the sweetness of fragility.It is Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh's On a Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye, that may be the best current version of the domestic travelogue. Recounting their move from Manhattan to Aiken, South Carolina, where they buy a 60-room, turn-of-the-century mansion ("From a dark stand of pines...it emerged...long, ghostly temple walls, a Doric portico, a glassed-in colonnade, two high, massive gables, a balustrade in the air...the curve of pagoda eaves"), the book sometimes borders on architectural porn. But Smith and Naifeh also offer a real sense of place; their Aiken is a believable town with a real history. Even better, Joye is buoyed by a self-conscious sense of its own absurdity. Reading at times like a parody of the genre, Smith and Naifeh revel in the sheer mercenary kick of owning 60, count them, 60 rooms, and the hopelessness of trying to restore such a mammoth Dixieland wreck. Ultimately, they approach the genre in the only appropriate way: as out-of-the-closet camp.Finally, though, even Smith and Naifeh are defeated by the limitations of the form. Only a contractor can really savor endless descriptions of wall moldings, and there is something fundamentally odd about all these homeowners. Focusing more of their energy on constructing a house than touring their adopted home, they seem to be building a refuge from the place they supposedly came to explore.Unfortunately, the alternative take on the travelogue, '90s-style, isn't any better, though it does offer a stark contrast. If the Mayles-inspired daydream is obsessed with finding a home (and is largely the province of women and gays) its counterpoint, the Gonzo-inspired travel book, is all about escaping home, and is mostly the work of righteous dudes. Even more formulaic than the domestic fantasy, this kind of travelogue flaunts a number of rigid conventions, each more grating than the last. Among the traditions: titles are hyperactive and/or hint at self-immolation (Jaguars Ripped My Flesh; Running the Amazon); the writer tends to choose exotic locations that don't lend themselves to comfort (Siberia, the Amazon, anyplace where no one else has been before); and, most important, the mode of transportation becomes the phallic counterpoint to the womb- like Tuscan villa. It isn't enough to cross the Sahara. Action travel writers have to do it on a rickshaw, unicycle or camel. Particularly popular are brightly painted retro cars. If Mayle's clones owe everything to Martha Stewart, the Gonzo travelers owe most of their sensibility to Mountain Dew commercials.The results can be so clone-like that it's hard to distinguish one from another, though Sean Condon's Sean & David's Long Drive is as good as any, which is to say its bad. "When Sean and his friend David set out to explore Australia in a duck-egg blue 1966 Ford Falcon," the book blurb promises, the payoff is "a decidedly offbeat look at life on the road" that chronicles "over 14,000 death-defying kilometres." You'll feel every bump in the road. Being trapped in that duck-egg blue Falcon with Sean is like taking a cross-country trip with Pauly Shore. "Underneath a completely grey South Australian sky," Sean serenades, "Sonic Youth carry us headlong into the future. It's way cool. I wonder what all the cows and sheep think of this music as we fly past blaring, as we bye past flaring, as we bare past flying.... They're probably Generation Xers as well." Uh-huh. Probably.While Sean's Joycean wordplay (which reads suspiciously like a middle-aged man attempting a slacker shtick) should be enough to make you carsick, he can't seem to help himself. Relentlessly driving but going absolutely nowhere, Sean underlines the problem with most road warriors. Always the object of their own desire, they are more interested in recording their sheer stamina than observing much of anything from that speeding car.Granted, some risk-takers also know how to write, and even make an effort to take notes. Tim Cahill, who helped pioneer the genre, has perfected a fast-moving style and a feel for eye-opening narratives; his characteristic Road Fever is a rollicking ride from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay that rates as an excellent adventure. Also worth reading are several recent renditions by women, which at least add a feminist note to the all-boy's club of bungee-jumping travel writing. Particularly good are Ann Linnea's Deep Water Passage, in which she one-ups the men and kayaks across Lake Superior, and Katie Hickman's A Trip to the Light Fantastic, a Felliniesque voyage across Mexico with a circus no less.The best of the backpacker's travel adventures, though, may be Jeremy Seal's A Fez of the Heart. Setting off on an intrepid trek across Turkey, Seal is in search of the hat that symbolizes, for Westerners, the mystery of the Middle East. What he discovers are often esoteric slices of Turkish history, and some actual insights into a distinctly foreign world.In the end, though, even an intelligent observer like Seal is hamstrung by the conventions of his road trip, and so distracted by his very high concept that he only keeps one eye on the scenery.What is the alternative? If both the domestic and the undomesticated, the nesting and sky-diving schools of travel writing fail us, where can the reader turn for eloquent wanderlust? The best choices may lie outside the genre of travel writing itself. Since we can no longer pretend we're objective observers, the very function of the travelogue looks suspect. The better options are narratives that freely admit to their own subjectivity, and give in to a kind of impressionism that does, at least, faithfully record one person's sense of place.Take J.S. Marcus' Captain's Fire, a recent book from Knopf that comes classified as a novel. Marcus' hero, a bisexual Jew named Joel LaVine, floats through contemporary Berlin in search of some haven. Always disoriented and rubbing against the city's unsettled cliques --skinheads, neo-Nazis, bohemes, drag queens, hustlers and artists -- he mirrors Berlin's own dislocation. In this case, if nothing else, the narrator's neuroses echo, and fully comprehend, the city's.The same is true of David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, another book that can't be classified as a travelogue but makes most examples of the genre look puny. In the essay collection's final piece, already a modern classic, Wallace lets his shamelessly self-absorbed psyche loose on a hapless Caribbean cruise. The consequence is a thankfully pitiless and condescending portrait of Americans at play that qualifies as the year's most satisfying travel essay.The real contemporary treasure, though, is Lars Eighner's Travels with Lizbeth, a memoir that defies every travelogue convention. Forget ambitious travel plans. A purely reluctant voyager, Eighner hits the road less out of choice than necessity, and has no route in mind. Homeless and aimlessly hitching rides through the Southwest, he records all the sights that haphazardly cross his path: lonely drivers, parks filled with the dispossessed, thieves on the run, truck stops and interminable strip malls. Never searching for much besides warmth, and never attempting to record anything but his own experience, he sees more than all the seasoned professionals observe from their hillside villas and hot-pink Cadillacs. Why? As self-absorbed and solipsistic, in his own way, as Theroux, Eighner doesn't project himself, or his expectations, onto the landscape. Envisioning nothing, looking for nothing, expecting nothing, he finally wants nothing back from the scenery. And that, in the end, makes him the very best kind of traveler. Sidebar:Words of WanderAt Home in France: Tales of an American and Her House Abroad by Ann Barry (Ballantine Books) Road Fever by Tim Cahill (Vintage) Sean & David's Long Drive by Sean Condon (Lonely Planet Publications) Travels wth Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets by Lars Eighner (Fawcett) A Trip to the Light Fantastic: Travels with a Mexican Circus by Katie Hickman (Flamingo) Deep Water Passage: A Spiritual Journey at Midlife by Ann Linnea (Pocket Books) Captain's Fire by J.S. Marcus (Knopf) Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes (Chronicle Books) On a Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Little, Brown & Co.) A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat by Jeremy Seal (Harcourt Brace) The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux (Fawcett) A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown) Our Paris: Sketches from Memory by Edmund White (Knopf)

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