"AMERICANS LIKE TO WESTER; but when you reach the Pacific, why stop there?" wonders Ian Frazier in Travels in Siberia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30). Twenty years ago, contributing editor Frazier went westering in his classic Great Plains, and now he's hopped the Pacific to wander across another mythic, yawning land: Siberia. In size, the place makes America's Great Plains look like a bath mat. The continental United States plus most of Europe could fit inside it. The largest forest in the world, the Russian taiga, runs across its middle for 4,600 miles. And yet what we know of Siberia, mostly, is one word: exile. Czars and Soviet apparatchiks sent millions to prison camps there. All suffered; many never returned. Frazier wants to get to know the land behind the infamy. "Using a place as punishment may or may not be fair to the people who are punished there," he writes, "but it always demeans and does a disservice to the place."
In the case of Siberia, though ... not so much. On the evidence presented here, the place is pretty awful. Travels incorporates five Siberian journeys between 1993 and 2009, but the meat of the book concerns Frazier's six-week drive across the region in 2001. Accompanied by two spectacularly indifferent Russian guides, he drives east from St. Petersburg in a crappy van filled with anxiety and hope. Hope mostly fails him. Frazier and his mates squelch a van fire, hunt for campsites free of knee-deep trash, and vomit in a town named Unhappyville.
Because it's Frazier at the wheel, though, his misery is a reader's delight. Here he is on Siberia's armies of mosquitoes: "On calm and sultry evenings as we busied ourselves around the camp, mosquitoes came at us as if shot from a fire hose." He also catches quiet moments of beauty amid the overwhelming bleakness, finding, for example, meaning in the ubiquity of crows, which "seem to be awaiting the return of Genghis Khan," so they can feast on the casualties of war. For all its misery, Russia enchants Frazier with what he calls its "incomplete grandiosity," its operatic way of encompassing the heights (Tolstoy) and depths (Stalin) of humanity, a grandiosity that doesn't end but rather "just trails off into the country's expanses," always heading east, into Siberia.