Writer canoes in the wake of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), sees much, expounds a lot, says a little.
Leff, a retired environmental official who has written about his Connecticut hometown (The Last Undiscovered Place, 2004), defines himself as a “deep traveler”: interested not primarily in getting from point A to B but in experiencing all that lies between. Military history, sociology, urban planning, the rise and fall of the mill economy, water pollution, the history of highways, the evolution of the canoe, the ugly ubiquity of big-box stores—these are what deep travelers consider as unobservant slobs gun their SUVs to the mall to get fat and buy superfluous stuff. Leff doesn’t reproduce Thoreau’s journey—impossible because of changes in the waterways and the closing of canals—but he does explore it, sometimes following his predecessor’s itinerary, sometimes going in the opposite direction. With him for various stages of a journey taken in several installments over several years were his young son, who complained of boredom until Nature won him over; a city-planner friend; and his future wife, with whom he exchanged snippy dialogue that seemingly escaped from one of Robert B. Parker’s less successful thrillers. Indeed, much of the conversation here is stilted and staged, with people speaking in earnest epigrams and structured paragraphs. Throughout, the author keeps company with some ghosts of travelers past, evoking and quoting not just Thoreau but also Ray Mungo and John McPhee, who published an essay on replicating the trip in 2003. Leff is not always complimentary, sneering with populist disdain at McPhee as a writer for an “urbane New Yorker audience.” Nor is he always entirely accurate; Leff calls Thoreau a “loner,” a characterization belied in Robert Sullivan’s recent, and much better, The Thoreau You Don’t Know (2009).
Pedantic and self-righteous.