Travel writing is mostly bad.
It’s partly the fault of the form; contemporary travel magazines are filled with 10 Best New Hotels/Bars/Spas on Yet Another Tony Exclusive Island or How to Eat Fabulously in This Most Glorious Setting You Will Never See.
Sometimes, quality sneaks in. And every so often the glossies still let Paul Theroux into the works so as to keep their bonafides burnished. But even he (I’m going to guess) doesn’t get 15,000 words any more, which is what you really need to tell a story about a really far off place. Instead, we get magazine pages full of short and trite pastiches of breathtaking vistas, italicized delicacies, and instantaneous eurekas. This is the opposite of the actual experience of travel, which is both contemplative and confusing, internal and external, a messy surge of sensations both exciting and frustrating. And that includes the dynamic with travel companions, which can be the messiest of all. The point of good travel writing, it seems, is to mediate all that for the audience in a way that draws them into the writer’s experience. Rather than spin a thin fantasy of something that will never happen (the reader lays out on St. Barthes), why not woo them with what did happen (George Saunders goes gonzo in Dubai).
Such is the mode of Wells Tower’s “Meltdown” in Outside, in which he tells the tale of his and his father’s (and ornery brother’s) family trip to Iceland and Greenland. Tower’s travel dispatch is fundamentally non-traditional: he doesn’t know much about where he is, and doesn’t really try to find out. The story is mostly about how Tower and his father, who survived cancer several years ago, have made an annual trip to celebrate his father’s beating the odds. The trips are all ill-conceived, difficult, and, according to Tower, have often been nearly lethal themselves. Here’s the set up:
Eight and a half years ago, when the oncological bookmakers gave my father three years to live, we sat together in his hospital room and vowed that, if he survived, the two of us would take a trip each year to celebrate his outliving his expiration date by another twelvemonth. When we cooked up this scheme, I think we both privately thought we were merely following timeworn etiquette that calls for grand travel fantasies when someone is dying. (Think Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck to Ratso Rizzo in extremis: “When we get to Miami … .”) But when Dad surprised us both by beating his rogue cells into remission, it would have been a thumb in the eye of St. Christopher to go back on our vow.
Tower is such a good prose stylist and humorist that you forget the story is not about the traditional travel poles of chasing a destination, or the destination itself, but how his bizarre familial relations are thrown into relief by plopping them down in some of the world’s most inhospitably population locations. I could have used about 5% less jokes, but jokes are hard, and the others are so good that they compensate. Witness the lede:
In the Inuit village of Tasiilaq, on Greenland’s east coast, in a bar whose name, as far as I can tell, is Bar, people are enjoying themselves as though the world will end tomorrow.
There are maybe 30 folks in here, few of them women, nearly all of them catastrophically drunk. Two men who look fresh from a seal hunt are locked in a dance that is part boxer’s clinch, part jailhouse waltz. One of them falls. I can feel his skull hit the floor through the soles of my boots.
I’m on vacation with my father, Ed Tower, an ebullient man of 65 with a belly that strains his parka nearly to the point of rupture. We are not handsome men, but, as a result of their near-lethal intake of Tuborg beers, the few local females (none under 50 or so) have taken a shine to us. My father is flanked by two. One looks like Ernest Borgnine; the other, Don Knotts…
…”Do you dance?” the woman asks Dad. “Why not?”
I can think of several reasons, actually. One, those men by the bar are not looking at us kindly, and, it should be noted, you can buy guns in the grocery stores over here. Two, my father, survivor of an exotic strain of lymphoma, is still in delicate shape from a bone-marrow transplant a couple of years back, and I’m not eager to see him shake his fragile moneymaker on a dance floor that looks like a fourth-down blitz. Three, and most important, is the fact that, in my father’s company, trips have a tendency to spiral into disaster. The mishaps are sometimes large and sometimes inconsequential, but the specter of calamity always rides in his sidecar. Here, on our ninth day, we are both still in one piece. We fly out tomorrow. The smart thing, it seems, is to quit while we’re ahead.A grinning elderly woman approaches me unsteadily. I hold out my hand and she falls over, bashing her face on my shin. I help her up. She thanks me, lists hard to starboard, and capsizes again.
It’s so good for the most part that I could blockquote the whole thing! I won’t. But do read on!