Outside magazine, June 1996


Lighting Out
By Miles Harvey

The Atlas, by William T. Vollmann (Viking, $29.95), and Disappearance: A Map: A Meditation on Death & Loss in the High Latitudes, by Sheila Nickerson (Doubleday, $22.50). "It is...pleasurable for me to page through a certain great atlas that I have, idling over unknown countries while I wait for my companion of the evening to finish brushing her teeth," writes William T. Vollmann. And as its title indicates, Vollmann's sprawling new work--a maelstrom of fiction, autobiography, and reportage, exquisitely arranged in palindromic fashion, is itself something like an atlas, offering 53 stories set in a variety of far-reaching locales, from Phnom Penh, Sarajevo, and Jerusalem to Berlin, New York, and Mogadishu. Fittingly, most of these tales explore the role of the traveler. But as we hop from Tokyo to Nairobi to Diesel Bend, Utah, with the cast of characters shifting as fast as the scenery, we seem to meet the same clich‹s--the tragic junkies, the world-weary johns, the whores with hearts of gold. It's as if Vollmann, having conceived of the brilliant structure of his itinerary, couldn't be bothered too much with the actual details of the journey. The result is a book that is, in its best turns, daring and brashly politically incorrect but often, unfortunately, vaguely familiar.

Yet another attempt at literary cartography comes from Sheila Nickerson, the former poet laureate of Alaska. "I live in a place where people disappear," writes Nickerson. "People go out in planes, boats, on foot, and are never heard from again." In this haunting book, she contemplates the state's epic history of vanishings, from early explorers lost amid snow and ice to House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, whose plane vanished there in 1972, to an acquaintance of Nickerson's who met a similar fate. "Kent and his companions had fallen into that empty space beyond known latitude and longitude," she writes of her friend. "It was a space I needed to define, but how? How do you map a disappearance?" Nickerson accomplishes the task, and brilliantly, using stark, lyrical prose and an extraordinary gift for synthesis. The result is a sweeping work that looks at everything from the vanishing of native cultures and wildlife to the author's own mortality and her impending disappearance from the earth. Nickerson's book, like the very best of maps, not only helps you place yourself in the world but is itself a thing of rare beauty.

Travels with a Hungry Bear: A Journey to the Russian Heartland, by Mark Kramer (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95). "Welcome to an absurd place," says a Soviet intellectual upon Kramer's arrival in the U.S.S.R. in 1988. As the author revisits regularly over the next few years, touring the agricultural heartland during the strange transition away from communist-style farming, that description proves increasingly apt. Kramer's witty book, part of which was originally published in Outside, takes us through an outback full of bleak, state-run collectives like the Farm Beacon of Communism and Farm Precepts of Lenin, where productivity is discouraged for having a bad moral effect on the community. In this fertile region, explains a frustrated bureaucrat, "We've found a way to turn gold into manure." Kramer offers plenty of intelligent insights about why reversing that process will be difficult. But as a travelogue, his book sometimes drags--most noticeably during those sections in which Kramer's every movement is controlled by his Soviet handlers. It's not until the final chapters, when the author is finally able to wander freely, that Travels with a Hungry Bear really soars.

Sands of the Well, by Denise Levertov (New Directions, $20.95). In a career that spans 50 years and more than 20 books of verse, Denise Levertov has built a well-justified reputation as one of the greatest poets of the natural world. Her lengthy new collection--contemplating everything from the flight of a wren to the music of Bach, from nuclear testing to medieval con men--is radiant proof that at 73 years of age she still possesses an uncanny ability to "dig and burrow into the world." Among the best work here is a series of meditations on mortality, in which Levertov hears the sound of her own approaching doom in the hoot of an owl and in the "delicate, distant, mercurial" ring of a neighbor's wind chime. She listens to these death knells with calm resignation, but her poetry, full of shivery epiphanies, reflects--and inspires--an unflinching passion for life.

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