Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review: The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down

For a few months I had a craving to re-read and re-watch The Joy Luck Club. In theory, this should have been an easy craving to indulge. I have the book and I have the film, or at least I thought so. A hunt ensued to find the book, which I finally did at the bottom of a closet, in a box labeled "School Files." The film, however, no such luck. I managed to borrow the movie from the library and viola! Craving indulged.

So what triggered the craving? Andrew McCarthy.

I was not aware until last Fall McCarthy is a travel writer, and quite a successful one. My awareness came from a brief article somewhere discussing his book The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down. I thought, "he's a writer now?" Then I thought, "I have to read this book." (I suspect my first reaction was similar to thousands of others who grew up in the 1980s.)

And what a great read.

The basic selling premise of the book is McCarthy leaves his everyday life in order to find himself and come home again. His quest is to become the man who he believes he needs to be in order to marry his long-time love "D" and settle down with his daughter and son. As he stated in an interview with LA Times, "I have to have me so we can have us." All of this questing takes place under the umbrella of his travel writing engagements, which is the real narrative here.

You know from the start of the book the marriage takes place. Oops - spoiler alert! So there is no question of whether or not he feels he fulfills his quest or at least enough of it to get married. Why read the book then, right? Well, to me the book is more about the geographical travels then the personal journey threaded through them.

McCarthy has used his travel experiences as an engaging backdrop and as a character actor in his story. He walks the route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, hikes across a glacier in Patagonia, travels the Amazon via boat, explores Baltimore with a close friend, and climbs Kilimanjaro. Because I want to go to each locale his travel experiences popped off the page. Well, except maybe the Amazon as I don't do well with bugs but that's not the point.

At the same time I enjoyed the travel visuals, I empathized with his struggles with being around people all the time on his adventures and wanting desperately to be away from said people. It is a contradiction, to be sure, when traveling if you want to experience a new locale. You must explore where you are but at the same time long for the comfort of solitude will doing it. Not an easy feat for an introvert.

Overall, Longest Way Home is a balanced combination of a memoir and a travel book. It is neither one nor the other, but a palatable combination which made me wish other authors had figured out the formula first before attempting their own memoirs. The book is self-indulgent as a memoir, the author wanting to make it relevant for himself and not just the readers. And this is okay. Many authors fail at understanding, however, without another story-telling 'catch' many readers fall away by the middle of a memoir and lope through to the finish if self-indulgence is all there is (*cough* Rob Lowe *cough*). That is not the case here.

Point of note: There is a randomness to the sequencing of the travels, the lineage  best understood by the author then the reader. This may be distracting or off-putting to some readers. But if you focus on the locales it all comes together tidily.