Into thin error


Civilization has given us all kinds of wonders like opera and Zip-lock bags, but it's also taken away the grand old ways of proving one's manhood. Those challenges aren't usually missed by men who use words like "grand," but sooner or later, everybody feels the urge to test their mettle.

British journalist Tim Moore didn't even recognize the feeling of ambition when it first fluttered through him. "Pre-war Britons had dropped the baton handed them at the turn of the century," he notes. "My generation had gone back, found it, and thrown it into a lake. We'd made virtues out of under-achievement and torpor." But when his wife brings home an old book about the unlikely adventures of Lord Dufferin, his courage is fired. "If he could conquer the icebergs," he declares too optimistically, "I could conquer my inertia."

With less preparation than one might make to see a movie in town, Moore sets off to retrace Lord Dufferin's 19th-century trek to the Arctic. The results are more Monty Python than Dr. Livingston, I presume.

"Taking hardships with humorous philosophy and dealing with unvarnished men are not my strongest suits," writes the author, whose strongest suit is an old tweed. "Dufferin seemed the personification of Kipling's 'If.' I'm more a 'But...' man myself."

Equal parts Bill Bryson and Evelyn Waugh, Moore confesses that he's deathly afraid of polar bears, boats, and wool. But he's determined that a trip to the world's most forlorn spot will satisfy his vague desire to achieve something noble - and impress his Icelandic in-laws that he's not the chronic wimp they know him (accurately) to be.

Convinced that he's sure to "make a posthumous appearance in a documentary exposing the fatal shoddiness" of his ship, he begins a journey of unending nausea interrupted by moments of sheer terror.

During the rare moments when Moore can drag himself from bed, he tumbles violently across the deck in his socks. (He discovers that wearing shoes on board is a Scandinavian taboo. As is vomiting on the crew.) He's not cheered when the kindly captain shows him a map marked with thousands of previous shipwrecks.

When he finally slithers off the boat, Moore begins a bicycle trip across "the barren volcanic moonscape of the unforgiving Icelandic interior.... It felt like cycling to market with a fair-sized piglet on the handlebars and its prize-winning father on the back mudguard. Manoeuvring had to be undertaken in oil-tanker fashion - a U-turn could not safely be achieved with fewer than five points - as any attempt to redirect the handlebars by more than 2 degrees resulted in the bicycle's center of gravity shifting to a point somewhere in Malaysia, sending you into an unstoppable collapse. Following such incidents, I also noted that I could not lift the bike unaided."

Though the first subject of ridicule is always himself, Moore turns his satiric eye on the Icelanders with much success. "One's first Icelandic shower," he writes, "invites a terror that the sewers have blown back, and it takes some time to come to terms with bathing in a fluid that blackens your jewelry." Iceland's wild pride, impossible language, oppressive weather, unbridled consumerism, and violent alcoholism, all fall to the author's razor-sharp wit.

Unfortunately, Moore could do with less. Some passages are tedious, and the level of scatological humor may turn readers away.

As he dodges boulders and biting flies, sails to Norway, and finally arrives at Spitzbergen in the Arctic Circle, our intrepid explorer realizes he's not a good match for Lord Dufferin at all. Instead, he begins to sympathize with a side character in Dufferin's memoir, an aging valet limping behind his master with too many suitcases. When it's all over, our sides ache, too.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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