Books: Blinded by Rhinestones

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1994

Books: Blinded by Rhinestones
By Andrea Barrett

Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy, by Jonathan Evan Maslow (Random House, $25). "I had just turned 40, the biblical halfway point in life, and found myself divorced and without children--in other words, a biologically superfluous male, footloose, and still afflicted with a pulsating wanderlust." So horse enthusiast Jonathan Maslow describes the inspiration for his 1991 boondoggle in Turkmenistan. His hope was to find a rare desert horse known as the Akhal-Teke-- almost wiped out under Soviet rule--and to ride one across the Kara Kum desert, "with only the treeless plain, the horizon, and Chekhov's 'baked lilac sky' before me."

Although that ride never happened, Maslow succeeded in other, unexpected ways despite constantly thwarted plans and the interference of bumbling KGB agents. Horse breeders and traders befriended him and brought him to the only private Akhal-Teke stud farm in Turkmenistan. The desert yielded some of its secrets, among them the realization that "I wasn't a good enough rider to make a solo journey through such an implacably hostile environment... a hard lesson for a male." His account, fresh and funny, weaves together personal anecdote, the history of Turkmenistan and the Akhal-Tekes, and the changes rumbling through a remote Central Asian republic on the eve of revolution. May midlife crises always yield such pleasures.

An Empire of the East: Travels in Indonesia, by Norman Lewis (Holt, $25). In 1991, veteran travel writer Norman Lewis explored the Indonesian archipelago of 13,000-odd islands, focusing on North Sumatra, East Timor, and Irian Jaya--all places increasingly squeezed by the Indonesian government's drive to modernize. The resulting book is a collection of astute observations on the collision of tribal culture, tropical ecology, and an imperial policy that dislocates people from their history, land, and customs.

Although he's never polemical, Lewis arouses outrage in the best way: First he seduces with descriptions of Indonesia's natural beauty, which includes rare rainforest species such as the Malayan sun bear and the barking deer; then he details such scenes as the government-sponsored migration of millions of landless peasants from overpopulated Java and Bali to "farms" on the outer islands, which prove to be no more than sites rudely hacked from the forest. "Change in Indonesia is rapid and sometimes depressing," Lewis writes. "Today's luxuriant forest is tomorrow's bare hillside, and today's mountain tomorrow's copper mine." Despite the depredations he describes, however, there's nothing depressing about this sensitive and beautifully written book.

The Forty Fathom Bank, by Les Galloway (Chronicle Books, $10.95). It's 1940, and Hitler's Germany has effectively shut down the North Sea fishery creating, among other calamities, a shortage of fish-liver oil, a vital source of vitamin A. When San Francisco fishermen subsequently discover that a small gray nurse shark indigenous to the waters off northern California is loaded with the nutrient, prices skyrocket and a feeding frenzy ensues. Les Galloway's stunning and suspenseful novella turns on this unusual plot point and the greed of one poor fisherman struggling to raise a family. In return for a share of the catch, a local seaman leads him to a lucky spot off the 40-fathom bank--but as the fisherman's hold fills with valuable fish, he suddenly views his guide as very dispensable: "Everything seemed sinister, the pearly haze, the thick morning air, and the tumid sea water.... For the first time in my life, I didn't want words, but some kind of violence." What transpires is a morality play as troubling as the roiling sea itself. Galloway, who died in 1990, worked as a commercial fisherman for most of his life. And while sea stories tend to bear the obligatory book-jacket comparisons to Hemingway, Galloway's authentic tale actually deserves as much.

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