Responding to The Odyssey’s siren song, NPR contributor Huler (Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, and How a Nineteenth-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry, 2004, etc.) retraces that ancient journey around the Mediterranean.
Fierce curiosity is the sharpest tool in this writer’s kit, and its keen edge is evident everywhere here. Indeed, some subjects exert a Charybdis-like pull on Huler, who can quickly fall into a vortex of all-consuming research. But his account of peregrinations in pursuit of Odyssean sites is generally entertaining and often illuminating. Most chapters feature a brief summary of a particular episode in the epic (fortunately, not always delivered in the same fashion) and then an account of his endeavors to locate its setting. Trying to catch trains and ferries, finding food and lodging, even communicating could sometimes be frustrating, but then a serendipitous travel experience—like the little boat that took him and him alone to the Sirens’ islands—made it all worthwhile. Huler isn’t embarrassed to admit to spending time in the land of the Lotus-eaters looking for Star Wars locations—the movie was shot in Tunisia—and he’s quite funny when he imagines Odysseus’s e-mail (“P: War over—remember my horse idea? Worked!”). Along the way he delivers a few shots at “nicotine-stained Eurotrash” and complains mildly about being on a cruise ship with 200 versions of his grandmother, but for the most part he is a generous spirit, interested more in his own pursuits than in condemning those of others. Huler writes with a profound informality (the Cicones give Odysseus “an ass whipping”) and sprinkles his tale with allusions to Scooby-Doo, jackalopes and Law & Order, but he also delivers scholarly mini-lessons on Homer’s identity and the oral tradition. Far from crashing on the rocks, he returns from his voyages of discovery with much knowledge and—no surprise—a sharper appreciation for native grounds.
Part travelogue, part lit-crit, part self-discovery, part paean to home—and all in all, a most fantastic voyage.