Catch of Off-Beat Travel Writing

By , Mary Warner Marien, who writes from LaFayette, N.Y., teaches fine arts at Syracuse University.

THERE are those who hold that all great literature is in some sense travel writing. What is more elementary about a story, they reason, than the way it tracks a protagonist from here to there?

Yet if there is one feature that distinguishes travel writing from other literary genres, it is the attitude of the traveler. Travel writers are repeatedly overwhelmed by the world's variety. Diversity may awe or outrage them, but it can never be ignored.

Thus it is that Randy Wayne White, the former Florida fishing guide who now pens the "Out There" column for Outside magazine, can be called a travel writer. As this first compilation of his writing proves, White may not stray as far or as often as other travel writers do, but he's got the appropriate attitude.

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Which is not to suggest that the man is impervious to the humor of his own fey delinquencies. Taking on the white-water rapids of North Carolina's Natahala River, equipped with a vintage life preserver pilfered from a small Belizean airline and a canoe so flimsy that it's almost transparent, White maintains a bemused fatalism. This philosphical bent is amply fulfilled as he bobs ever closer to a snarl of water roaring as vocally as "an all-day train wreck."

Eleven years as a fishing guide, placating a sometimes trying assortment of customers, might mute the sensibilities of others. However, time seems to have deepened White's confirmation of his own values, not the least of which is the realization that sensitivity and masculinity can affably coexist.

Reporting on the prestigious Orvis Shooting School at Mays Pond Plantation in northern Florida, he grants that while he enjoys hunting, he is repulsed by the killing and shies away from it. "I am comfortable with the hypocrisy," he admits deliciously, "unless I have to argue the position." But then, White doesn't choose to argue; he just shoots to miss.

Although he has had a continuing relationship with the Outward Bound schools, which attempt to teach self-reliance through wilderness treks, White remains skeptical about the ultimate results of programs that bring "systemization ... to the wilderness." In the era of ecotourism, his wry reflections on the commodification of hardship are worth pondering. Relatedly, one wishes that White's editors had sent him off to scrutinize one of those fashionable male weekend powwows, where the participants intone gu y-affirming chants.

There are many new travel writers on the scene right now, but few whose prose is booby-trapped with laugh-out-loud observations so intricately wired to a lean declarative style that they cannot be adequately paraphrased. Flares of mordant description erupt regularly in White's text: a tarpon is depicted as "a jumping fish that commonly weighs more than a hundred pounds and looks like a giant chrome-glazed herring."

White's stories detonate somewhere between the pranksterish perceptions of Dave Barry and the acerbic political observations of P. J. O'Rourke.

Then, too, there is just enough gonzo journalism in White's reporting to remind readers of the press's bad boy Hunter S. Thompson. Still, White's writing is distinctive, in large part because it is infused with an agile and ready tenderness. He is mugged on the back streets of Huancayo, Peru, while seeking to properly recompense an Indian woman and her son for the soup they gave him.

Canine fanciers beware: This collection begins with a dog story that we know from the first will end badly. Yet the tale is so compellingly narrated that the terse lump-in-the-throat ending comes as a blow.

Perhaps the long hours Randy Wayne White has spent fishing helped to condense and polish his style. Though many of his stories are brief, they have the cadence of days spent at sea. He writes for readers who like to give themselves over to the sway of stories, the camaraderie of jokes, and who are not afraid of honest tears. His is a welcome, fresh voice that, like all such genuine voices, extends the scope and audience for travel writing.

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