The Gulf Coast beckons and Jenkins (Across China, 1986, etc.) heeds its call in this mildly entertaining, slow trawl through southern waters. Travel writers are having a rough time of late on the marital front. Paul Theroux, Bill Barich, Jonathan Maslow -- all have hit the road to knit up the pains that accompany family meltdown. Add Peter Jenkins to the ranks, nastily tailspinning after his wife handed him his walking papers. Even a second marriage failed to lift the funk. Then it dawned on him to log a few miles. Why not float the smooth coastal trajectory that runs from the Florida Keys to the humid shores of southern Texas, reckoned Jenkins, fondly recalling that his ""teenage skin, sometimes trashed by zits, had cleared up"" when he spent time at the seashore; perhaps it would have the same balming effect on his trashed psyche. So he bought a boat, took a few piloting lessons, and pushed off. What follows are long portraits of the odd cast of characters he meets on his travels (interspersed with boating travails, occasional flashes of Gulf lore, and snatches of local natural history): charter fishermen out of the Keys; rough-and-tumble, gator-stomping bayou brothers; jungle-dwelling ex--drug smugglers now into designing computer software; the aged ladies of Wilcox County, Ala.; tough, sand-land cattle ranchers from the Texas tidal reaches. But Jenkins overdoes these sketches. So desperate is he for adventure and release, every soul he encounters is given a hagiographical aura: Rough-hewn, colorful, wise, they're too good to be true -- or believable. The book's most genuine episodes are at tableside: Rarely have the pleasures of raw oyster po' boys and spiced crawdads been sung with such relish. Not without diverting moments, but not the odyssey Jenkins wants us to think, either.