Acclaimed novelist Russell Banks has said he enjoys stories that he can both see and hear. Voyager – a collection of travel writing by Banks – show us exactly what he means.
When it comes to travel, Banks is no mere dabbler. Just when you start wondering if you’ll ever know an area of the world as well as he does the Caribbean, you realize that the second half of his anthology is made up of shorter tales about almost 10 more places that he knows just as well.
Banks’s constant need for escape and travel takes him to the Himalayas, the Andes, Cuba, North Carolina, and Alaska, among other places.
But Banks is simultaneously making an inner journey as well. Throughout the first half of the book, as Banks makes his way to and from each island in the Caribbean, he weaves the history of each of his three marriages into the text by recounting each relationship to Chase, the woman who will soon become his fourth wife.
While he recounts his naiveté and uncertainty, present in some way in all of his relationships, he compares his experiences to the way he felt when he saw some of these places years ago, recalling who he traveled with and what he was thinking about at the time. In these passages, his fascination with time and space is evident and links well with his quest to understand why the events of his life happened as they did. Throughout his work, Banks reflects upon the journey: “Like a lifelong sailor, I find myself wondering, now that the end of my final voyage is in earshot and sight, how and why I ended up where I have ended up."
He expresses, among other emotions, fear and regret about his previous marriages and for the pain he believes he has caused his family. But the intertwining of his travel stories with his accounts of these relationships seems to allow him, eventually, to gain perspective on the world and his place in it.
In his exploration of time and space, the history and emotion Banks thinks he should attach to a particular place do not always match up with the way he feels now. He longs for the quiet streets of a Dutch port, the way it was when he visited with his second wife and three daughters, but now it is filled with loud tourists, making it difficult for him to regain the connection he once had with the place.
He heads to a college reunion at Chapel Hill, where he seems disoriented, struggling with a somewhat familiar, but distant memory, as he realizes that he only has pieces of that version of himself left. He tries to recognize what it is that he is looking for: “Where innocence ended? Where the dreams started to face? Where divorce and disillusionment and the steady dying began?”
As he sees friends in North Carolina he hasn’t seen for 20 years, he describes the area where they hold the reunion. “[S]oon, however, the familiar beauty of the place cast its spell, and we both found ourselves listening to one another describe himself twenty years ago as a naive country kid with luck and pluck who was essentially faking it in a world that intimidated him.” Once again, Banks uses the environment around him to parallel his relationships. Earlier, he had described his friend Ben as “harder to reach in conversation ... distracted,” but then the connection is made and Banks's nostalgia and longing for the place and the friendship come back to him.
When he attempts to climb Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas, he recalls how he failed at his previous climb and doesn’t seem to fear whether he will once again be injured, but instead thinks of how his family will remember him if he fails again. “I had thought of my wife and my children and my grandchild: If I die here, once again they will have every right to remember me with only anger.”
He doesn’t make it to the summit and wonders if he has wasted time, energy, and money while preparing for a climb he would essentially leave early, when he meets a woman waiting for her friend on the mountain. He tells her he didn’t make it to the top of the mountain. Her response is, “That doesn’t matter. Beyond the mountains there are more mountains. And the journey is always more important than the arrival."
Her words are pretty much the theme of "Voyager." Through his writing, Banks is able to recognize the links between many of his experiences, and comes to understand parts of his life as just that – experiences. What remains unresolved, however, is the contradiction between what Banks thinks he’s supposed to feel and what he actually does. He observes his environment and describes the people around him and then questions why he doesn’t actually feel remorse or awe or surprise.
Banks may not. But in various places – throughout this moving collection of travel pieces that rise to the level of literature – readers surely will.