Running To The Mountain

Stephen J. Lyons reviews 'Running to the Mountain: A Journey of Faith and Change' by Jon Katz

Published March 2, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| Baby boomers will never be mistaken for the Greatest Generation. We whine and analyze to the point of hysteria. We crave early retirement, natural fibers and the perfect vacation. And when we turn 50, as we have been doing in great numbers lately, we stomp our polished Rockports and demand a treat.

In "Running to the Mountain," Jon Katz handles his mid-centennial crisis by escaping to a ramshackle cabin in rural New York state, temporarily abandoning his disapproving wife, his college-bound daughter and their suburban house full of boring responsibilities in New Jersey. For a Journey of Faith and Change, one must strip down to the essentials: a laptop computer, two dogs, a bottle of Glenlivet and a bundle of Thomas Merton books. In time Katz will claim his mountaintop by slamming in a four-foot Primestar satellite dish, which although it slightly blocks the commanding view is oh, so worth it: "I was thrilled to sit down with my Primestar switcher and watch 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer,' or call up 'Scream' on a movie channel at midnight." Ah, wilderness.

The author of this rambling memoir has also written several novels and a couple of nonfiction books, including "Virtuous Reality," a discussion of media influence that takes on William Bennett. Paraphrasing William James, he tells us that his real reason for moving to the mountain was spiritual, "the highest calling of any artist: to find that immortal beauty whose presence constituted my innermost soul, if, in fact, I had a soul at all."

Enter the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Katz's guru and a counterweight for his boomer angst. Like Katz, Merton also withdrew from the world -- but it was a permanent move, in 1941, to a Kentucky monastery where he wrote such spiritual classics as "The Seven Storey Mountain." Katz's book is peppered with quotations from Merton, which are some of its best lines. Merton even pays Katz an imaginary visit during which, over imaginary whiskeys, the author shows him the miracles of the Information Highway: "I took him into my cabin, where my Powerbook sat ready. I'd called up fifty Merton Web sites ... He was astonished, transfixed. I also showed him a Web site run by his friend the Dalai Lama, then left him alone for half an hour or so ... I heard childlike exclamations of delight and surprise as he clicked away." Thank goodness Merton didn't check those inflated Internet stock prices or do a search on the word "girls."

Katz admits that his soft life has not prepared him for country living. Subcontractors abound, landscaping, killing mice, installing water lines and a new septic tank and draining his bank accounts. He finally settles in to contemplate his navel and several estranged family members, including a bad dad who unsuccessfully pressured him to play baseball as a boy. (Having a pushy father is hardly newsworthy, even in memoir-driven publishing circles.)

In between Katz's checking his e-mail, getting drunk with ghosts and channel surfing, nature does make an impact on him, albeit a small one. I guess his experiment is a success -- he gets some relief from the city, anyway. But the book is nothing new; it isn't even a fresh take on spiritual seclusion à la "Walden." What, exactly, is engaging about a successful writer buying a fixer-upper in the country? Katz belongs to the upper middle class, but money can't buy faith, and that may be why every time one of life's big questions crosses his mind, he ducks behind another snippet of Merton. The book is supposed to be about change, but all that really changes is the author's debt load. What's going on is simple: Katz is aging -- and, as so many of us thought, that wasn't supposed to happen.

By Stephen J. Lyons

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of "Landscape of the Heart," a memoir of single fatherhood. He lives in Washington state.This week he received a rejection letter that described his writing as "unfocused and full of broken glass." It actually made him feel good.

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