Kurt Caswell’s award-winning essays channel Phillip Lopate and David Foster Wallace, while exploring the plight of a “mountain man” stuck in a paved-over world.
Kurt Caswell wants you to take a walk with him. His uneven but ultimately charming debut essay collection, An Inside Passage—winner of this year’s River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize—features personal accounts of no fewer than fifteen walks through more than a dozen locales around the globe. And these aren’t leisurely strolls—these are essayist walks: treks of deep purpose through formidable terrain—the recesses of the Ganges, the summits of Hokkaido, Japan—full of slow-moving, enthralling lyrical gasps from a writer who believes, with undying conviction, that walking remains “a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills.”
There’s a sharp current of ambition in each of Caswell’s journeys, but it’s his tirelessly hopeful sensibility that drives this collection. The fuel of each quest remains constant—the use of motion and nature as a salve—but it’s often Caswell’s unexpected destinations, both physical and spiritual (marriage, broken friendships, loss, divorce), that prove to be the source of his ambivalence: Can the world and its ills still accommodate someone who believes that “immortality is possible simply by going on a journey”?
For those accustomed to Ander Monson’s self-referential bells and whistles, or the hardened city wit of Vivian Gornick, Kurt Caswell is not your man. The earlier essays in An Inside Passage range from sprawling, solitary meditations on “accepting the world, its successes and failures, creations and destructions, its living and dying” (“Five Country Walks”) to short admirations of the blue heron’s single-mindedness (“A Matter for Heron”). In “Fawn,” Caswell takes a grizzly account of hitting a deer with a pickup and elevates it to a suspense-filled, lyric waltz with nature’s gray areas:
The fawn was breathing fast and warm on my arm, its eyes closed, unconscious. I ran my hands down the length of its legs, across its back, palpating the muscles and bones. Nothing broken, I thought. I found abrasions. Bloody scrapes from the friction with the road. One on the right hind leg. Another small red strawberry on its left side. Across its head, to my shock, most of the hair was torn away. It was scalped and skinned, pockets of pain, and it bled from the soft petals of its ears.
However, Caswell’s aesthetic can, at times, seem hermetically sealed, close to cutting the reader out of the equation. “A Horse Builds a Woman in a Storm (A Dream),” for instance, is exactly that: an insulated prose poem that reads like little more than a cut-and-paste from Caswell’s dream journal. And “Letter to a Young Girl at Summer’s End,” in which Caswell addresses a former student who died in a car accident, seems more a repository for his resentment of the deceased’s family than a keen attempt to map grief’s unwelcome ripple. “Your mother came into the church, supported by one of the pall-bearers and quivering in her bottom lip,” he writes. “I’m sorry, but that was an act.”
When Caswell’s nature-gaze broadens to include the far murkier prospect of human drama, the writing grows sharp, effacing, and endearingly vulnerable. An Inside Passage becomes, for a time, an account of the slow dissolution of his marriage—and it’s here that he reveals himself as a man tragically out of place in the realms of the social. In essays like “The Best Thing about Marriage Is Divorce” and the brilliant “Banaue Tercet”—in which Caswell, his despondent wife, and a third party with romantic ties to both, spend an uncomfortably close New Year’s Eve hiking in the Philippines, waiting for the Y2K punchline to reveal itself—Caswell pits his preference for solitude against the odd terrain of coupling. After his wife confronts him about her desire for children during a trek in Batad, Caswell offers: “She doesn’t really desire me, so it seems, but my seed… Wasn’t the marriage supposed to be about wanting each other, not a third person who hadn’t been created? Or did I have it all wrong?”
Unlike the blue heron or the depths of the Ganges, people remain unsolvable puzzles to Caswell, and he loosens the still, luxurious flow of his language when he considers them. The result is an appeal both to readers who share his affinity for exotic locales and to those who cherish the everyday ironies of the human predicament. The rhythms in his later essays are playful and choppy, the word choice refreshingly crass. (He describes a tour guide’s legs as “fuckin’ huge,” in the illuminating and hilarious “Wild Man at Iouzan,” and comments in another piece that a student’s rationale “sounded like doo doo to me.”)
In the book’s true gem, “The Rescue,” Caswell goes in search of a student gone AWOL in the California woodlands following a body mod gone wrong. The author takes the opportunity to deliver a humorous and forgiving consideration of not just the history, but perhaps the true draw, of the storied Prince Albert, that channels the wit and sprit of David Foster Wallace.
The final essays—“vision quests” in Death Valley, treks to retrace the steps of his elders in Alaska—attempt with a learned, elegant wisdom to justify his plight as a “mountain man” stuck in a paved-over world; but there’s something to be said for the power of directness. As with Wallace and Phillip Lopate, Caswell knows when to drop the poetry and cut to the chase, such as the moment in “The Rescue” when he barks out his principals with curmudgeonly delight: “We’re all little more than a single hair on the universe’s great ass!” he wants to say to his students, but decides instead to tell the reader.
“Forget about your little drama and go live your life!” he exclaims—but by the end of An Inside Passage, we’re happy to have settled for his.