The Game of Risk

James Conaway

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The Adventurist: My Life in Dangerous Places
by Robert Young Pelton (Doubleday, $25)
The author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places and Come Back Alive delves into his battered valise for a combined memoir and travelogue that reads like a squeezed-off Kalashnikov—staccato episodes of dirty little wars and wilderness forays alternating with quick takes in the rearview mirror. One minute Pelton is in a bloody conflict in Afghanistan and the next he’s remembering his boyhood in Canada, the beginnings of a “turbulent life that was to contain an intricate pattern of sights, smells, sounds, senses, and impressions.” Just as you digest one disturbing anecdote—the time, say, that three-year-old Pelton’s distraught and abused mother put his head through the kitchen wall—it’s fast-forward to Southern California to drink with Navy SEALs and take another stab at macho self-examination: “I’m not military, nor am I easy with taking orders, backing causes, or even caring to die on principle.” Suddenly the kid at an Ontario school for borderline delinquents is a middle-aged man with many real (and some manufactured) adventures under his belt—sojourns in Borneo, Pakistan, Tanzania, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Pelton says he found his calling on the day he stood under a portrait of Sir Richard Burton in London’s Tate Gallery and realized that a life of adventure, bankrolled by articles and documentaries, was the only way to go. In these brief flashes, Pelton gets the adrenaline flowing but leaves finesse behind—in Mali, for instance, “the heat slams you down like a drunk in a bar fight.” He winds up showing us how to travel dangerously, if not how to write. 

The Snakebite Survivors’ Club: Travels Among Serpents
by Jeremy Seal (Harcourt, $24)
Frightened of snakes as a child, the author of A Fez of the Heart, a memoir of teaching in Turkey, decides to deal with his persistent herpetological dread by searching out the worst of “thanatophidia” (a Victorian term for death-dealing snakes)—from the king cobra of India to Africa’s black mamba to the taipan, a particularly nasty bit of Australian coil with venom six times stronger than a cobra’s and a disposition to match. Along the way, Seal encounters both self-styled snake charmers (like the boozy “King of the Reptiles”of Mamallapuram, India) and real snake catchers (like Francis Ngombo of South Africa, who travels on public buses with a noosed stick and writhing sacks). Seal’s white-knuckled voyage is more about people than snakes and is enlarged by well-researched historical detail and squinty-eyed snapshots of the scaly global outback, from the American South to South America. Creepy snakebite stories abound, including one about a fundamentalist Christian serpent handler in Alabama who tried to off his wife with an ecclesiastical rattlesnake. Seal’s writing is vivid, humorous, and wonderfully chilling. 

Teewinot: A Year in the Grand Tetons
by Jack Turner (Thomas Dunne Books, $24)
This veteran guide and pissed-off lover of wilderness (see his last book, 1996’s The Abstract Wild) meditates on decades of experience in one of America’s most heavily used national parks. The title refers to a 12,325-foot peak, a rocky epiphany hanging in the view from the cabin Turner built and lived in for 18 summerswhile guiding climbers and otherwise serving as a knowledgeable custodian of the park. One of the better known of the Exum guides, Turner describes, in this year of rambling and recollection, badass climbs with such famous Exumites as Leigh Ortenburger and the late Alex Lowe, and thoughtfully juxtaposes his Teton excursions with journeys as far afield as the Himalayas. Finely detailed descriptions of trail life make readers see the specific beauty of remote ranges, taste hot milky tea on subzero mornings, mourn with him the deaths of friends like Lowe, and dread disasters like the Wyoming storm that engulfed the author and a party of novices (“Above us, mature cumulonimbus bulged like muscles…a lightning bolt hit a glacier and turned it green”). Woven into all of this is a paean to America’s public lands that may lack the fierce iconoclasm of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire but conveys a similar sense of loss: “What was protected by a handful of nature’s patrons and the federal government remains beautiful; what was not protected has been forever despoiled for the benefit of a few.” Anyone interested in difficult country and the inspiration it provides would do well to read these accounts of climbing, trekking, and thinking. 

The Water in Between
by Kevin Patterson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $24)
If a klutz like Patterson can sail to the South Seas, so can you. But writing about it this well is something else again. The author, a physician, mixes high-seas pratfalls with tempestuous love affairs, and all of his escapades are funny and touching. Distraught over losing a girlfriend, this young doctor leaves his post as a medic in the Canadian Army and buys a boat, the Sea Mouse—who but a devout ironist would attempt to sail to from Victoria, B.C., to Tahiti and back again in a craft so named?—despite knowing zilch about sailing. Patterson’s salvation is a similarly lovelorn sheet-metal worker and sailor named Don, who agrees to accompany him on this fool’s journey. Don is remarkably forgiving of the author’s ineptitude, including Patterson’s destruction of a sail just off Seattle and his loss of the anchor shortly after that. The two men get to know and like each other in the horse latitudes of the mid-Pacific, where by day “the light is like a magnesium flare,” and by night “the starless sky lay on the horizon like black silk on onyx.” Patterson’s comic-obsessive reflections on loves past and the allure of other modern travel writers (particularly the late Bruce Chatwin) are mordantly insightful: “Self-contempt and misanthropy are the parents of peripateticism.”In a satisfying denouement, he successfully solos from Hawaii back to Canada, stronger, wiser, and a better, though no less amusing, sailor.