Mitch Nevin hasn’t heard from his best friend, Mark Reddox, in four months; as it turns out, neither has Mark’s own wife, Kiyomi. Mitch, a lifelong resident of Canada who has been abroad only once, is poring over communications from Mark. Unlike Mitch, Mark is a world traveler. He spent his youth backpacking from place to place, once writing to Mitch: “All travel undertaken for adventure is in fact a little suicide. Every journey begun without a set schedule or return ticket is an attempt to separate the umbilical cord that ties us to life, as we know it (ha ha), and propel us into the infinite, the endless expanse of gray ocean, or, if you are theologically inclined, into either a trance of clouds or a lake of fire. I expect that I’ll be committing these little suicides until… well, until I die.” Apparently abandoning his little suicides, Mark settled in Japan, marrying, fathering a child, divorcing, remarrying and becoming a father again. Mitch, whose quiet pleasures consist of photography, golf and the clutter in his studio, receives dispatches from Mark over the years as Mitch leads a thoroughly conventional life with his own wife and their dog in the suburbs. Now that Mark is missing, Mark undertakes detective work from Canada, but that can only go so far—until the sale of some of his photography allows him to fund a trip to Japan, where Mark lived for 20 years, and eventually to the Philippines, where Mark disappeared. In Japan, Mitch finds that Riku, Mark’s first child, is in a coma and may not recover. His family is reeling in Mark’s absence. Mitch traces Mark to a city in the Philippines that is a hot spot of sex tourism. In his search for his friend, Mitch befriends Vera, a woman working as an escort who makes him feel like no one, not even his own wife, has been able to do in years. Finally, Mitch traces Mark to a Christian mission for the care of impoverished children. What he finds there challenges his image of Mark as a seasoned world traveler with a life worth envying. Guest’s characters are easy to identify with, even when their circumstances are alien; he treats the domestic melodrama of a beloved dog’s death with the same gravity he uses to describe a young man in an interminable coma. Despite the wild chain of coincidences that leads Mitch to Mark, the book stays grounded and realistic; the unlikely doesn’t seem unbelievable. On top of a compelling narrative and tidy prose, Guest offers keen insight into the dynamics of male-female relationships, the conflicts between different cultures, and the contrast between aspirations and reality.
As much a philosophical novel as a travel story, Guest’s first book is well worth a read.