The account of an extended walkabout in search of “people who would accept me, teach me how to live without a feeling of aloneness, teach me love and allow for my sexuality”—which Schneebaum (Where the Spirits Dwell, 1987) finds in New Guinea and, to a lesser extent, New York City.
Schneebaum’s memoir often reads like an anthropological investigation into the life of the Asmat people of New Guinea, with whom he has lived for at least a part of each of the last 25 years. With the Asmat he found intellectual, spiritual, and self-expressive fulfillment—through the art of their carvings (“the power and ferocity of the carvings, in fact, invaded my dreams”), through his own writings on them (chronicling their everyday lives and customs), and through “the world of sexual excitement.” Schneebaum describes his sexual life in New Guinea (as well as in New York City) with candor and gusto, although the Asmat world of sexuality is far more relaxed, in a way that gay sexuality couldn’t have been in New York City over the last two decades. The author is an enthusiastic participant and informal observer, giving vivid descriptions of Asmat dance, stories, myths, hunting, eating, clothing, and art. He lovingly depicts the process of carving works for practical, ceremonial, and decorative applications, and he delights in strange juxtapositions (such as “preparing a proper Seder in the swamps of New Guinea”). Schneebaum’s delivery can be pugnacious, but his material is so otherworldly to the Western reader that it will very likely raise plenty of eyebrows—although it makes for good storytelling.
Despite an occasionally pedantic tone, Schneebaum tells an astonishing tale with exceptional verve and brio. (11 b&w photographs)