Review, April 1997
No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo, by Redmond O'Hanlon (Knopf, $27.50). The author of Into the Heart of Borneo and In Trouble Again has built an illustrious literary career out of making ill-advised journeys, with often unenthused companions, into untamed jungles. Here the English writer is up to his old tricks--heading into "the last untouched jungle in Africa" with a biologist friend to investigate apocryphal sightings of a long-necked dinosaur in the Congo's Lake Tëlë. In the course of his wild trek through the swampy interior, O'Hanlon suffers a bout of delirium-inducing malaria, converses with a forest spirit who warns him he will die "a long, messy, mutilated death," and offers a veritable graduate seminar on the natural history of equatorial Africa. Miraculously, O'Hanlon manages to escape his grisly fate, but the Lake Tëlë dinosaur turns out to be little more than a farcical legend designed to lure tourists to the region. Given O'Hanlon's formidable skills as a storyteller and humorist, No Mercy might have been a great tale, yet it feels as though he's merely plugging familiar characters into a formulaic narrative he perfected in earlier works. Maybe it's time for O'Hanlon to bypass the jungle for less familiar territory.
Uneasy Rider: The Interstate Way of Knowledge, by Mike Bryan (Knopf, $25). "If you can't get a conversation rolling at the counter of a truck stop restaurant, you have either no talent for it or no interest," writes Mike Bryan. Luckily for us, this intrepid road-tripper has plenty of both. In this manic, often hilarious book, he explores a region shunned by most self-respecting travel writers: the interstate highway system. Determined to discover "America, as it is; the real thing...the carnivorous beast," he embarks on a series of road trips between Dallas and Los Angeles, following the billboards to dozens of roadside attractions and small highway communities along the way. Take, for example, his detour to a rattlesnake farm with a gift shop crammed full of freeze-dried snakes and "snake everything," or to Sierra Blanca, "a politically inconsequential backyard of a town" in Texas that serves as a dump for New York City sewage. Bryan uses the tales of those he meets--right-wing motorists and opera-loving police officers--to refute the notion that highways "create a homogeneous culture, suburban and absolutely middle-American." Like most road trips, this one has a few dull stretches, but overall it's a rich and weird foray "deep into the heart of American massness."
The Island of the Colorblind, by Oliver Sacks (Knopf, $24). You don't ordinarily think of the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat as a travel writer--unless you count his journeys to the far reaches of the human brain. So when Oliver Sacks lights out for the tiny Micronesian atoll of Pingelap at the start of his latest book, it's clearly not for an extended beach vacation. As a result of inbreeding, one in 12 natives of the Pacific island is born totally color-blind--a condition that Sacks describes as "surpassingly rare." After portraying the achromotopes of Pingelap, Sacks chronicles an earlier trip to Guam, where he investigated a fatal neurodegenerative illness called lytico-bodig--a confounding combination of Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's, and Alzheimer's diseases. Sacks's fascination with islands, and with the medical and botanical oddities they spawn, is riveting, as is the good-natured rapport he enjoys with his patients. "Come again soon," one patient cheerfully tells him. "I won't remember you, so I'll have the pleasure of meeting you all over again." This book, written with economy and subtle humor, proves that meeting Oliver Sacks all over again is a pleasure indeed.
The Abstract Wild, by Jack Turner (University of Arizona Press, $16). Once, after he saw a visitor to a squalid zoo in India throwing pellets at a caged mountain lion, Jack Turner found himself throttling the man. Turner's collection of intemperate essays (one is subtitled "A Rant") is energized by a similar kind of righteous rage, but the anger is ultimately dispiriting. A former academic philosopher who now teaches climbing in the Tetons, he argues that our most fundamental environmental problem is that nature has become an abstraction, experienced through television and other media rather than through direct contact. "I am certain that less than 1 percent of our population has ever spent a day in truly wild country," he writes. Denouncing both photo-op tourism at "mega-zoos" like Yellowstone and what he sees as the "the 'fun hog' philosophy" of this magazine and others, Turner calls for "vast areas where we limit all forms of human influence: no conservation strategies, no designer wilderness, no roads, no trails." Eloquent in its appraisal of our culture's threats to the backcountry, yet defiantly misanthropic and contradictory in its prescriptions, The Abstract Wild may leave you wanting to throttle someone. Depending on your eco-politics, that someone might be the author.
Photograph by Clay Ellis