Shipping Out

John Skow

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River-Horse: A Voyage Across America
by William Least Heat-Moon (Houghton Mifflin, $26)
The most gifted and entertaining overwriter since Thomas Wolfe is at it again, this time logging his east-to-west voyage across America in a 22-foot outboard dory. Here’s Heat-Moon, only 15 minutes into his trip, having a wonderful time imagining “the cold ooze ten fathoms below, the Hudson currents washing to the sea, working the wreckage and dunnage in the black and perpetual silence, where somehow the whelks learn to drone the sound of the distant surf.” A moment later he’s riffing about submerged ship junk, things like “sundered bare-breasted figureheads staring in wide-eyed disbelief at their ill luck.” Readers of Blue Highways, the author’s first journey-book, and of PrairyErth, his seamlessly eccentric staying-in-one-place-book, will recognize the rhythms. Such riffs continue for 500 pages, four months, and a continent of crooked watercourses, from the Erie Canal to the cranky and cross-grained Missouri. Whether piloting the Nikawa (ni means “river” and kawa is “horse” in the Osage language) with a series of companions or paddling a backup canoe, Heat-Moon is a resourceful tour guide, citing Dickens on the Mississippi (“this foul stream”) and admiring the peaceful Ohio (“the silent and hasteless river”). His account fizzes with intelligence and high spirits. But a journey undertaken so that a book may be written has its literary peril: Even the bony chapters must be composed. And though the author can find resonances in ten hours of wave slap or a half-day’s grounding on a sandbar, an account this honest may occasionally leave the exhausted reader peering wistfully toward landfall.

The Voyage
by Philip Caputo (Knopf, $26)
What begins as a fine, straightforward sea novel, the story of three young Maine brothers making a hard summer cruise at the turn of the century, takes on an intricate and puzzling superstructure. Nathaniel, Eliot, and Andrew Braithwaite row to the family schooner, the Double Eagle, one June day, expecting their stern father, Cyrus, to join them, as he has in other years. Instead he hands each a $10 bill and, with no excessive friendliness, says he doesn’t want to see them till September. Confused, the boys set sail, uncertain whether to head north or south. Leap ahead 90 years: Sybil Braithwaite, a middle-aged descendant of Andrew, burrows through old family papers, including the Double Eagle’s logbook. The ship had wrecked off Cuba, but what really happened on that voyage? What trigger, merely hinted at by family legend, set off old Cyrus? It is a trifle jarring that Caputo, a practiced novelist (and author of the acclaimed Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War), chooses to tell a gale-force sea tale as imagined decades later by Sybil. (It’s as if Moby-Dick had been told by Ishmael’s landlady back in New Bedford, on the basis of a postcard mailed from the Rachel.) But this is a melodrama, and a good one on several levels. Disbelief must be suspended, and it is.

The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing
by Thomas McGuane (Knopf, $25)
Can a recognized, certified, no-question-about-it very good writer convince a scornful unbeliever that fly-fishing is a noble endeavor? A noble, interesting endeavor? I’ll stipulate that we aren’t talking Norman Maclean here: A River Runs Through It was about people, not fish. In this memoir, novelist McGuane writes about fish, fishing holes, fish line, fish lineage, and thoughts while tormenting fish and then tenderly, gently, letting them go, thus feeling at one with the universe. There’s a lot of water out there, and the author flails most of it in these 33 essays. He has fished Iceland and Ireland, New Zealand and Labrador, Montana and the Florida Keys, for rainbows and bonefish and mutton snapper —”not at all handsome, with its large and vacant-looking head.” But variety blurs to sameness: Caught fish, didn’t; liked colleagues, didn’t. Technical insights resemble themselves: “I took off the ten-pound tippet and tied on a six-pound….” So the answer to the noble question is a baffled “No.” McGuane writes fondly, but somehow keeps passion a secret here, and The Longest Silence remains a book for confirmed aficionados. For those who don’t share it, another man’s obsession—think golf—is precisely as interesting as another man’s laundry. Except in the matter of catch-and-release, to which we unbelievers say, Never mind the universe, eat those little buggers or leave them alone! But probably we are wrong.

Alpine Circus: A Skier’s Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World
by Michael Finkel (Lyons Press, $23)
The author explains that he was headed toward a secure career as a suit when a couple of operatives, “code-named Mom and Dad,” taught him to ski. Somebody taught him to write, too, and to look at strange folk with a fresh and friendly eye. At 30, Finkel has been lugging his skis around the globe for a decade, reporting bemusedly on kinky and singular sliding. What is kinky? Skiing down a runaway-truck ramp in Colorado. Entering a slalom race on plastic bristle in snow-challenged Scotland. Singular? Giving a ski lesson to 26 Mongol, Tatar, and Kazakh horsemen in China’s Tian Shan Mountains. There were no conventional lifts—not counting the horses (“I was handed an elaborate crop made of braided leather strips tied to an oak handle inlaid with gold”)—and no real skiers. The tribesmen were fearless, but also turnless. So Finkel demonstrated the mysteries of checking speed and changing direction. Some of the guys got it, including one (do we believe this?) called Genghis, who showed real promise. The great sins of this sort of journalism are to be jokey, rather than funny, and to be patronizing. No fear with Finkel. Suit or no suit, he’s a writer.


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