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Wednesday, Apr 11, 2012

Hither and yon: three very different travel memoirs

Reviews of ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed, ‘American Sniper’ by Chris Kyle and ‘The Book of Drugs’ by Mike Doughty

By Jim Ruland

A catalog of the hardships of travel in the 21st century typically includes jet lag, cramped seats, long layovers and overzealous TSA agents. For modern American travelers, there’s a giant latte and overpriced cinnamon bun waiting for us at every stage of our journey to remind us how easy we have it. Thankfully, there are those who seek out the road less traveled and report on what they find there.

In her memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed, whose name reads like a sentence, couldn’t have made things harder on herself. With a pack that was too big and boots that were too small, she embarked on a journey to hike 1,100 miles along the Pacific Coast Trail alone.

Strayed needed the space. Coming on the heels of a devastating divorce and in the aftermath of her mother’s death, Wild chronicles Strayed’s attempt to navigate the mess she’d made of her life. Metaphors pop up like blisters: There’s the compass she doesn’t know how to use, the road maps that lead her astray and encounters with wildlife of both the four- and twolegged variety. But the most formidable adversary is the trail itself.

“Until now, I hadn’t truly understood the world’s vastness—hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be—until each mile was beheld at walking speed.”

Wild is more than a long walk in the woods. By turns heart-wrenching and harrowing, Strayed’s journey reads like a modern epic punctuated with unforgettable scenes fraught with suspense: her mother’s passing, the shooting of a horse, a creepy hunter. Strayed matches anecdotes from her life to the new self she forges on the trail to create a nuanced narrative.

Redemption stories may be familiar territory, but Wild is the rare memoir of how to mend a damaged soul that’s shattering to read.

***

If Wild is a story of healing, Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, is a book of damage. Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL who was stationed in San Diego, is credited with more confirmed kills—160—than any other sniper in the history of modern combat.

Like most soldiers who come through war and live to tell about it, Kyle downplays his own autonomy. He was deployed to Iraq four times and survived some of the war’s hairiest situations in Fallujah and Ramadi. He credits his kills to training and opportunity, but underneath the military speak of “target-rich environments,” Kyle maintains that his enemies are “evil” and “savages.” Every kill is a possible U.S. life saved.

Kyle’s storytelling is straightforward and direct. He’s a Texan who believes in God, country and family, and not necessarily in that order. He is not by any stretch a morally complicated person, and the book suffers for it. However, if I were in the proverbial foxhole, I can think of few people I’d rather have by my side.

***

Moral complications abound in Mike Doughty’s The Book of Drugs. On the surface, it’s a straightforward story of sex, rock ’n’ roll and, of course, drugs. Not surprisingly, it’s also a recovery memoir, but because of all the toing and froing involved in being a rock star, it also falls under the category of travelogue (if doing the exact same thing over and over again in identical places while consistently disorientated can be called “travel”).

Doughty, you may or may not recall, was the lead singer of Soul Coughing, a ’90s alt-rock band that was a lot like Doughty’s book: a little of this, a little of that, with an overall pleasing effect but unlikely to catapult him into superstardom. Doughty’s OK with that. He’s been there, done that.

But he’s got plenty to say, which makes The Book of Drugs an entertaining and engaging read, even if you’ve never heard of Soul Coughing. In fact, it might even be better that way. One of the big takeaways from Doughty’s memoir is that he hates his former bandmates. He spends more than a hundred pages describing their general awfulness as human beings without ever naming them.

Doughty’s many girlfriends don’t fare much better. “Swaz was a terrible performance poet. There’s a certain kind of would-be artist who chooses poetry because of its materials… to write a song, you need a guitar or a piano, and you need to learn how to play; to write a poem, you need a piece of paper and half an hour.”

While The Book of Drugs is easily one of the most jaded rock ’n’ roll stories you’re likely to encounter, Doughty’s humor—sharp, incisive and disarming—is its saving grace.


Write to jimr@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.




 
 
 
 
 
 
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