The latest entry in the successful Best American series offers a tough-minded collection of 26 extreme voyages testing endurance and granting revelation.
Noting that the world has now been “visited and revisited,” editor Theroux chooses works that reflect the writers’ “independence and self sufficiency to make discoveries . . . [and] look for places that have changed, or places to visit in a new way.” The articles, he notes, also encompass current elements of travel-writing (a term that makes him uneasy), including the drift into autobiography, the experience of travel as adversity, and greater “penetration” of writers at their sites. So Gretel Ehrlich travels to Greenland to accompany the Inuit on a spring trip to hunt seal and walrus; Philip Caputo rides and walks Kenya seeking Tsavo lions; Bob Shacochis moves amidst Texas and the Turks and Caicos Islands to recall the life of a once-fearless adventurer and his spirited, now-deceased wife. These and other selections by Russell Banks, Scott Anderson et al. blend captivating stories with questions about the call away from the world; in essence, they ask what gives some people, as Shacochis says in “Something Wild in the Blood,” “the fortitude and faith to step away from convention and orthodoxy and invent [their] own life.” Another kind of response comes with Susan Minot’s piece on Ugandan child-kidnapping: a call for political action. On the whole, the essays are captivating; only occasionally is the spell broken long enough for readers to wonder why they’re climbing that mountain, and why they’re so far from home.
No strolls in Provence or Walter Mitty reveries; these intense pieces are for the aspiring Lawrence of Arabia. All are tinged with the madness of seeking danger; the best also reveal an unquenchable longing and a fervent humanity.