A Sense of Direction

This first-rate travel book is – like all the best travel books – most fascinating when it has the author at its center.

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful By Gideon Lewis-Kraus Riverhead 352 pp.

I confess it took me a few dozen pages to figure out that I was enjoying A Sense of Direction and about a hundred to realize how terrific and original and entertaining it is. I don’t know that Gideon Lewis-Kraus built that delayed pleasure into the writing or if it’s simply that the better we know him the more we enjoy him.

He begins by introducing us to his dissipated late-20s artistic life in San Francisco and Berlin, where his ambitions as a writer have drifted into aimlessness: “As it became increasingly clear that my era of inconsequence was not going to end in Berlin ... I began to hope that it might end with Berlin. If moving to Berlin had not left me altered, alert and grateful and decisive, perhaps moving away would.” He and another writer decide the Buen Camino pilgrimage in Spain could be amusing, might give them “a sense of direction,” and so they venture off onto it. The satisfaction of grinding through a pilgrimage certainly includes the awareness that one doesn’t have to: “What makes it meaningful is that it’s really hard but it’s something anybody could do if he or she made the commitment to do it.”

The son of rabbis, Lewis-Kraus is ashamed of his ignorance of all matters religious, but he loves the directed-path ritual, which requires not believing but doing. As his younger, more even-keeled brother Micah reminds him, “You are not doing this to have fun or not have fun, you are doing this to see why other people do it, and why most people, at least sane people, do not do it. Don’t forget ... you did, after all, choose to do this.... Every time you don’t stop and come home you’re choosing to continue.”

Though we come to see that Lewis-Kraus is brilliant and funny, modest and earnest, he is also one of those attractive personalities who can rub friends and family the wrong way. “[O]ne of your problems,” his brother scolds him, “is that your hopes and expectations are consistently unreasonable. You think there’s going to be one moment where everything is finally going to be okay, once and for all.”

During his 40-day, sore-footed journey across northern Spain, he hears about a temple-tagging pilgrimage on a remote Japanese island and decides that’s what he wants to do, sort of. He has to keep moving; there’s a rhythm, despite the pain and discomfort of long hikes and awkward accommodations, that he likes, that responds to his brainwaves: “We’re walking quickly but time has begun to lengthen. Time has acquired a strange and spacious irrelevance, as if we could turn around in it. As long as we keep moving, time is kept at bay; when we stop, it catches up in a rush.”

Finally making choices that limit what he can do makes him more productive and purposeful as a writer. That is, he needs to write this book, but as is the case in other of my favorite travel books – from James Boswell’s "Tour to the Hebrides" to Vivian Gornick’s "In Search of Ali Mahmoud" to Ian Frazier’s "Travels in Siberia" – what interests Lewis-Kraus and us is less the places and roads he treks than he himself, the frustrated, skeptical seeker and the company he keeps: “I dislike travel writing about temples, or churches, or mosques, or architecture in general, or, for that matter, trees, or trains, or roads, and especially the Khyber Pass, in fact I think I only like travel writing when it’s not about travel at all but rather about friendship, lies, digression, amateurism, trains, and sex.”

His experiences during the first two grueling pilgrimages in Spain and Japan are profound; but they only resound after the fact. That is, in Japan, he spends a lot of his miserable time remembering – with terrible fondness – his miserable time on the Buen Camino, minus the misery: “For two days what I mostly think about is the Camino. More specifically, I try to remember if it was ever this bad in Spain. I forget the plot of any given movie within hours of seeing it, but I can remember an almost alarming level of detail about the Camino, every village we passed through, how long we walked each day, where we stayed, where we met Tim and Roman and Nora and Alina.”

His third “pilgrimage” is his attempt to dissolve or unloose his gnawing resentment against his father, a resentment that has been darting in and out of Lewis-Kraus’s thoughts from the opening pages – a real but unsatisfactory and unhappy resentment because there’s so little he can hang it on. His father only came out as gay at the age of 46, when Lewis-Kraus was 19. The father has, to his son’s annoyance, been revitalized in his gay identity, as if making up for lost time.

Lewis-Kraus and his brother meet their father in Ukraine for a Holocaust memorial gathering. The Lewis-Kraus contingent do not fit in with the thousands of Hassidic participants during Rosh Hashanah, but on a walk through a Jewish graveyard they are able to finally have “the talk” the writer has been seeking – a discussion that Lewis-Kraus has been hoping will clarify the meaning of the family’s emotional upheaval that came with the father’s new life.

One of our happiest pleasures is witnessing Lewis-Kraus’s continual uneasy revelations, his continual lively, cantankerous conversations with friends and family, his less-continual distracting side-interests, including the young woman from Shanghai who doesn’t want to be the muse of his pilgrimage-obsession. He has to sort through his confusion by his lonesome, but one of the graces of his narration is that he usually gives everyone else – fellow pilgrims, friends and family – the best and most clear-sighted lines: “I wondered then if the difference between people who believed in preparation and those who believed in proof, like the antagonism David described between those who believed in rehearsal and those who believed in spontaneity, wasn’t the difference between those who worked constantly for something that would endure and those who sought to capture something that occurred once.” Lewis-Kraus simultaneously accomplishes both on the page: catching what will endure and what will only happen once.

I’m a convert, not only to pilgrimages but to this first-rate book. Lewis-Kraus has helped me realize, in my own case, some of the mysterious attractions of difficult traveling in Russia, and to understand why my pilgrimages to discover the long-gone Tolstoy and Chekhov are frustratingly incomplete in the moment but emotionally rich ever after.
Bob Blaisdell reviews books for the Monitor and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has edited dozens of anthologies for Dover Publications.

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