In this third installment, we shine the spotlight on first-person narratives: a young reporter sets out on ill-advised “American safari” across the West; David Sedaris humorously dabbles with the darker sides of his life; a former British punk recounts her musical youth; an alcoholic leads us through his recovery process; and a writer describes his attempts (via knitting, musical theater and sex) to be the gayest man ever.
The Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, is one of the longest and most scenic hiking trails in North America. It winds through California, Oregon and Washington, and passes through some of the most rugged terrain in the country. As Dan White’s travel memoir, “The Cactus Eaters,” makes clear, it’s not for the faint of heart or tender of foot: Hikers can go up to 200 miles without encountering signs of civilization, and because of the trail’s length and difficulty, only about 120 people complete it every year. More than half of those who begin the trip do not finish it.
“The Cactus Eaters” is White’s spirited and amusing account of his journey along the Pacific Crest — equal parts adventure story, history lesson and relationship log. For White, the ruggedness of the trail offered an escape hatch from the doldrums of adult life. Before embarking on the trip, he was dreadfully bored with his job as a reporter at a newspaper in Torrington, Conn., where the paper’s lax editorial standards allowed for, among other errors, the printing of two consecutive Wednesday issues in the same week. Upon hearing about the trail, he persuaded his girlfriend, Melissa, to join him as he quit his job, abandoned his apartment and set out on what he called “an American safari.”
The trip, however, seemed troubled from the start. Setting out in Southern California, the two were clearly overpacked — their baggage included a John McPhee anthology and a kite. They were also frightfully inexperienced: Their previous hiking experiences had involved little more than day trips and an aborted attempt to walk the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail. Most ominous, Melissa succumbed to food poisoning on the journey’s first day and quickly began throwing up. In the weeks that followed, the couple’s fortunes improved. But they still managed to run out of water, get lost and have their water filter sexually assaulted by salamanders. They also spent an inordinate amount of time bickering about each other’s commitment. To his credit, White paints a remarkably unflattering portrait of himself, as a childish companion and boyfriend whose grand visions of the hike often threaten to tear the duo apart. It doesn’t help that he’s a frightfully poor decision maker, who, at one point, tried to extract water from a cactus (an attempt that ended with several dozen spikes embedded in White’s face).
Although the act of walking doesn’t often recommend itself as a topic of long-form nonfiction, “The Cactus Eaters” manages to be both eminently readable and fun. White breaks up his narrative with colorful tangents about the trail’s history, and describes the couple’s misadventures with witty, vivid prose. Although some of his epiphanies (about the spiritual nature of hiking, for example) seem a bit contrived, his breezy tone keeps his momentum from sagging, and the couple’s happier moments balance out their more dire predicaments. All in all, “The Cactus Eaters” is the perfect summer read for those of us who love being outdoors, but don’t mind, every once in a while, letting somebody else do the walking. — Thomas Rogers
“When You Are Engulfed in Flames” by David Sedaris
More than a few times I’ve alarmed my fellow passengers on airplanes and subways by loudly guffawing — OK, more like barking — over some passage in a David Sedaris essay. Once, some years back, I nearly fell out of bed (seriously!) laughing at the description of a French class Sedaris was taking, in which he and classmates from all over the world compared Easter customs in stilted translations that brought their absurdity into sharp relief. And whenever a new essay of his arrives in Esquire or the New Yorker, I gobble it up like … well … candy from “the rabbit of Easter,” who “come in the night when one sleep on a bed.”
In his latest pointedly funny book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” Sedaris covers familiar terrain: his quirky childhood in North Carolina; his feckless early adulthood; his life as an expat, living in France with his long-suffering boyfriend, Hugh. Yet as he does, a distinct preoccupation with death — specifically, with his own mortality — emerges, along with a certain wistfulness about the choices he’s made. Nowhere is this theme more apparent than in “Memento Mori,” in which Sedaris describes his response to a 300-year-old skeleton he has given Hugh as a present. “You are going to die,” the skeleton repeatedly intones.
“I’d always thought that I understood this, but lately I realize that what I call ‘understanding’ is basically just fantasizing,” writes Sedaris. “I think about death all the time, but only in a romantic, self-serving way, beginning, most often, with my tragic illness and ending with my funeral. I see my brother squatting beside my grave, so racked by guilt that he’s unable to stand. ‘If only I’d paid him back that twenty-five thousand dollars I borrowed,’ he says.”
The particulars of Sedaris’ life may not match our own (do you travel first-class around the country reading your books? Have homes in Paris and Normandy and a boyfriend who can cook, fix or put up with anything?), but his wry observations nevertheless evoke that “Me too!” rush of recognition. Here he vents his irritation with a bereaved seatmate keening too loudly for his dead mother: “It was as if he were saying, ‘I loved my mother a lot more than you loved yours.” There he describes the delight he takes in the ice cream sundae that comes free with his pricey business-class plane ticket, “each crumb of cashew or walnut eaten separately, the way a bird might.” Elsewhere he gloats about beating a 9-year-old kid and an overweight woman with Down syndrome in a swim race. And as he confesses to this vice and that personal failing, Sedaris points us to our own and, in allowing us to laugh at them, absolves us. — Amy Reiter
“The Importance of Music to Girls” by Lavinia Greenlaw
“The Importance of Music to Girls” does not resemble a standard memoir — or at least not the kind in which a writer makes a smooth, easy tale out of half-remembered anecdotes, plucking meaning and lessons from the scattershot mess of daily existence. No, Lavinia Greenlaw’s approach to her own coming-of-age story is disorienting and wonderful; she relates the basic details of her experience with such precision and intensity, it almost feels like an alien describing the strangeness of being human.
Growing up in a bohemian British family in the 1960s and ’70s, Greenlaw never seems quite at home anywhere. The world’s rituals and rules often baffle her, from playground games to the strange hippie clothing that London teenagers are wearing. “I thought that the music must be the key to becoming like them,” she muses. Greenlaw latches on to records as a lifeline that carries her through childhood: At 10, she “declares an allegiance” to Donny Osmond; a few years later she is going to local clubs with her girlfriends, dancing to Abba and Bowie, her face daubed with makeup as she tries to figure out how to be “a real girl.” When punk hits town in 1977, Greenlaw is inspired to lop off her own hair, and suddenly finds herself in step with a youth culture that treats being weird as a perfectly acceptable aesthetic choice. Music, she writes, “could change the shape of the world and my shape within it, how I saw, what I liked, and what I wanted to look like.”
“The Importance of Music to Girls” veers off at crazy angles, a cascade of sensations and observations that is exhausting, but also exhilarating. The book perfectly evokes the sense of release and rebellion of a teenage girl driving through the countryside with boyfriends, blasting heavy metal on the car radio — “the only thing that could tear a hole in the silence of a Sunday afternoon” — as well as the pleasure of lying around in a bedroom with a boy you like, listening to melancholy records.
How anyone can remember the contours of childhood consciousness in such detail I don’t know; it’s either an amazing feat of inventiveness or a terrifying display of total recall. Greenlaw does exhibit a kind of autistic detachment, and there’s a maddening vagueness when it comes to some of the major events in her life. Her entire school career is a blur (though she reprints some hilariously disapproving teachers’ notes in the margins of one chapter), her virginity is lost but not depicted, and her first love? He’s in there, all right, but this is her impressionistic description of their initial encounter at a party: “The usual things happened. Someone was sick. Someone stood on the smoked-glass coffee table and it gave way beneath him … I could not speak, so I sat and smiled while he talked. Eventually he stopped talking and put his hand on my thigh. I put my hand on top of his and we kissed, but quickly in case someone noticed and we became part of the circus.” Once you stop expecting to be titillated by the juicy intimate details of a woman’s life, “The Importance of Music to Girls” will sweep you up in much more unexpected ways.
— Joy Press
“Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever” by Joel Derfner
I have never, to the best of my knowledge, dated Joel Derfner, but after reading “Swish,” I could have sworn I had. And it was one of those pressure-free dates where I didn’t have to worry about what I was wearing or remember to clip my nose hairs or figure out the check. I didn’t even have to make conversation. Derfner handled everything, and the evening was over before I knew it.
The book’s subtitle is “My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever,” which makes the whole business sound far more systematic than it is. Derfner only takes up knitting because “my boyfriend just broke up with me and I need something to do with my hands other than Google him obsessively.” He has sex with lots of guys because, well, sex is fun (except for group sex, which features too many elbows). And he attends a conference of ex-gays because he can’t believe a group of human beings could be so dumb. Except that he is taken aback by the kindness he encounters there and, after a complicated dance of seduction and betrayal, ends up offering a silent prayer of his own for two conferees he has befriended. All of Derfner’s well-crafted essays follow this same trajectory from flirtation to haunted engagement. Like most humorists, he trails a painful history — a seriously ill mother, an absent father, blighted hopes of a singing career — and he has come to the unsurprising conclusion that “everybody alive is a lost and disastrous mess.”
Which may be true, but how many are so amusingly lost and disastrous? David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs are his obvious inspirations, but Derfner has his own way of braiding high and low. He can make antic hay with an ex-gay ministry musical that turns “They Call the Wind Maria” into “They Call My Sin Desire.” But he can also toss off words like “chthonic” and “ouroboros” with aplomb (he is, as he will remind you more than once, Harvard summa cum laude). And he can begin a footnote in the following breezy fashion: “I recently started studying Middle Egyptian in earnest.”
He is also extremely intelligent on the correct way to make a cocktail, which is “to fill the glass to overflowing with spirits and then wave the mixer somewhere vaguely near the rim.” Derfner has a similar habit of capping off his spirited reportage by waving vague epiphanies at us: little bows of pathos that speak to the sentimental strain in gay bravado. If that’s not your cup of tea, then tread with care. And if you think narcissism is what’s wrong with the world today, then, for pity’s sake, stay away. Derfner rarely leaves the shelter of his own cranium, but at least it’s fairly roomy there. You might even want to put up your feet and stay a while. — Louis Bayard
“Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life” by Neil Steinberg
Neil Steinberg is a successful newspaperman with two healthy boys, a cozy home and a loving wife to whom he occasionally pens understated but endearing odes in his regular column for the Chicago Sun-Times. He drinks a little too much — drops in at the corner bar a bit too often, knocks back a cocktail or three on the train ride home, sometimes staggers in at 1 a.m., but hey, he’s a writer — who in his circle doesn’t drink too much? His wife rides him about this, of course, and he growls back; it’s a little suburban shuffle that they do. But then, one night, slurry with whiskey and cognac, he hits her. Smacks her hard across the face, an act that lands him in jail and brings his conventional life to a screaming halt. Those long, liquid nights at the Billy Goat Tavern are replaced with the cold metal of handcuffs and one stiff shot of reality: rehab.
There is no shortage of literature about booze. But from “The Long Weekend” to “The Tender Bar,” most concern the dark slide into addiction; few chronicle the belly crawl required to rescue yourself from it. (One exception is Caroline Knapp’s excellent “Drinking: A Love Story.”) Much of Steinberg’s memoir takes place in fluorescent-lit A.A. rooms or at meals where he must begrudgingly swap his beloved Jack Daniel’s for iced tea, meanwhile reconciling himself with the man he has become: a drunkard. He wears the identity like a hair shirt, resenting the 12-step doublespeak and the God stuff. His struggle to stay sober isn’t exactly sexy; getting clean is never as fun as getting dirty. But it is a clear-eyed (at times even elegant) depiction of the desperation and denial of the white-collar wino, who must stumble repeatedly before realizing that intellect and ego alone are not enough to save him. His honest, unvarnished personal tale will be familiar — maybe even welcome — to anyone who has found himself in a hole and wondered, with despair: How on earth did I get here? And more important, how do I get out? — Sarah Hepola