Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus


A Sense of Direction
Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful
Gideon Lewis-Kraus
352 Pages
Riverhead
Published May 10, 2012



There are pros and cons for letting a book settle into your system before writing about them.  On one hand you get to let the big ideas settle and you have some time to turn them over and examine them from a few different angles.  On the other hand you start to forget stuff.   There is, however, an upside to forgetting stuff - you get to re-read vast sections of the book before you write about it.  Let me get this out of the way early - I loved this book and the re-read only confirmed my feelings.

A Sense of Direction is the first bit of nonfiction that I've read in very, very long time.  I'm surrounded by real-life all day, every day.  Fiction is where I go to take a break from reality and so nonfiction is typically not my thing.  But sometimes something pulls me out of my comfort zone and in this case it was the blurbs.  Blurbs from  Gary Shteyngart, Dave Eggers, and Sam Lipsyte.   Shteyngart's especially got my attention:
If David Foster Wallace had written Eat, Pray, Love, it might have come close to approximating the adventures of Gideon Lewis-Kraus.  
David Foster Wallace?  Yes, please! Eat, Pray, Love?  Not so much. Yet I was intrigued and so I dove in, hoping for the best, but sort of expecting the worst.  Isn't that how must journeys go?

Gideon is 27 year-old American writer, living an aimlessly in Berlin, always wondering if there isn't something better going on someplace else.  One drunken night, a friend suggests that they walk the Camino de Santiago (also known as the Way of St. James) and Gideon agrees.  It's a religious pilgrimage taken for non-religious reasons, but Gideon begins to discover some truths about himself over the course of the 800km journey.  When it's over he wants to do another pilgrimage, but this time he wants to do it alone and so he travels to a small island in Japan to do the Shikoku Pilgrimage.  The Shikoku is a 1,200km loop around the island in which the pilgrim visits 88 Buddhist temples and finishes the journey exactly where they began. After completing the Shikoku, he convinces his younger brother and his father to do one last pilgrimage with him, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the Ukrane with 40,000 Hasidic Jews.

Gideon has a lot of issues to work out along the way, the most important being his relationship with his father.  Gideon's dad is rabbi that decided to come out of the closet at the age of 46 and essentially give up his family to "live the life he deserved." Gideon has a lot of anger towards his father for essentially abandoning him and his mother and his brother and he's structured his adult life to avoid ending up like his father.
For my part, I moved [to Berlin] as a kind of preemptive strike, reasoning that if I bolted while I could, in my late twenties, I wouldn't bolt when I couldn't, in my forties, or maybe more specifically at approximately forty-six, when my dad left his marriage and moved in with Brett, a lovely guy he met at the gym, and Micah and I could never get in touch with him about car insurance or baseball games because the two of them were always disappearing to the nightclubs of Key West or Palm Springs. They emailed self-portraits in sailor suits from themed Atlantis cruises down Baja.
So Berlin, where the parties go all night and anything is possible, leaves Gideon feeling adrift and desperate for some kind of structure.  Once Gideon starts walking the Camino, he happily gives himself up to the journey.  On the Camino there is only forward and the path is well-marked and the structure and single-purpose of it all gives him a kind of peace and calm.  There are, of course, many hilarious events and funny characters along the way and those are what propel the narrative for the most part. But the real meat of the book is in Gideon's self-discovery along the way.

I wouldn't say that A Sense of Direction is a travel novel, although there is a good amount of writing about the process of walking the pilgrimages. I don't typically like travel novels and thankfully, this book is a lot more than a collection of landmarks and landscape.  Gideon Lewis-Kraus pretty accurately sums up my feelings on the matter:
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.
A Sense of Direction doesn't have any trains, is mostly pretty chaste and light on the lies, but there's a lot of friendship and amateurism.  As Gideon goes on his pilgrimages, he learns lessons from unlikely sources, realizes that there's a level of self-centeredness involved in these trips and finally makes some kind of peace with the things in his life that cause his emotional turmoil.  A Sense of Direction isn't really about the journey across, Spain, the walk around a Japanese island or even the uncomfortable (but hilarious!) gathering of Hasids in the Ukraine - it's about searching and discovering that you can go anywhere you want, but a change of scenery doesn't always make things better and at some point you need to take control of your life.  At some point you need to align your internal compass and move forward.

I said it at the top and I'll say it again now, I really enjoyed A Sense of Direction.  It's as much about Gideon Lewis-Kraus' physical journeys as it's about his journey as a friend, brother and son.  It's about acceptance and choosing to forgive and through that discovery, finding purpose. I highly recommend A Sense of Direction for those who are restless and hopeful.

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