“I decided to become adventurous through sheer will,” writes Andrew Solomon at one point in his new book Far & Away. “Unlike the majority of people, who grow steadily more cautious as they get older, I've become less and less constrained in adulthood.”
Long before Solomon began getting travel assignments as a freelance writer and reporter, he was already a student traveler to many countries (the cover of "Far & Away" includes a photo of the author as little more than a boy, wavy-haired and wide-eyed in front of a tank), and once he began writing for the New York Times Magazine in the 1990s and New Republic and Travel & Leisure and Esquire and The New Yorker and other venues, the ambit of his travels expanded to encompass the entire world, from Taiwan to Libya, from Ecuador to Moscow. "Far & Away" is a big, sumptuous collection of those pieces of reportage and travel writing.
Readers of Solomon's "Far from the Tree," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, or "The Noonday Demon," which won the National Book Award, will already know the wonders this author can do with words. Solomon is foremost a keenly sympathetic observer; in every one of these reprinted pieces, he's carefully watching the everyday people on whose homes and plights he's also reporting.
In “Circle of Fire: Letter from Libya,” for instance, originally published in the New Yorker in 2006, he's finely sensitive to the silences in every room under the rule of a dictator: “Now Qaddafi claims that he has no formal role in Libya and is simply an avuncular figure dispensing wisdom when asked,” he writes. “Yet Libyans are afraid to say his name, except in official contexts where it meets with predictable cheering.” Likewise when he's writing from Afghanistan, he not only sees but hears the joy of liberation: “A long-silenced country, where women could be arrested for humming to their babies, where it was illegal even to clap your hands, is suddenly full of every kind of music in every place.”
Solomon recounts a wide array of adventures in these pages, from China to Romania to the Solomon Islands (which, he puckishly tells us, he visited in part because of their name; “When I made the reservations to go, I joked that I was leading a trend in eponymous travel”). Readers are given his classically manic 2014 Esquire essay set in Senegal, “Naked, Covered in Ram's Blood, Drinking a Coke, and Feeling Pretty Good.”
In “Adventures in Antarctica” (from Travel & Leisure back in 2008), he encounters enormous sea lions on Enderby Island rumbling about in the brambles instead of sprawling on the beach. “Something about their decision to skip the beach and plop themselves in the thickets was surreal, as though they were trying to trick you into believing that they were properly land animals,” he writes. “They would periodically raise themselves up on their four flippers and walk laboriously across the grass, ponderous and deliberate as old donkeys.”
He concludes the collection with a harrowing account (originally published in Moth in 2015) of being stranded in the open ocean off Orpheus Island while scuba diving, recalling the moment when he first realized he'd been accidentally abandoned by his boat: “Now I was alone at sea, with nothing but water and sky in every direction. There was no one to wave to, nothing to swim toward. For the first time that morning, I thought, 'People die this way.'”
But as dramatic as these and other stories are in recounting Solomon's adventures all over the world, equally memorable as a strand running through "Far & Away" is the picture it presents of the evolution of a traveler. “Authenticity is a traveler's grail. It can be sought, but not planned,” Solomon quite rightly observes, noting the difference between tourism and travel. He tells us that it took some time before he acquired “a taste for discomfort,” and once that happened, once he came to feel the natural untethering that all veteran travelers feel, he never viewed the world the same way again. “No one had forewarned me,” he writes, “that if you live abroad any good while, the notion of home is permanently compromised.” Instead, as trite as it sounds, the journey becomes the destination, and the world becomes a series of freewheeling adaptations to varying levels of dirt, noise, exhaustion, and enlightenment.
Solomon writes that slowly, gradually, he learned that “either you have a good time or you have a story to tell,” and he became open to either outcome. And certainly the pieces here recount their share of hard, tragic circumstances. But prevailing mood is a smart, detail-oriented exuberance; this is a shrewd and generous view of the world as few people get to see it.