Not as widely known as big-hearted Bill Bryson, wandering Paul Theroux or the ravenous Anthony Bourdain, longtime author Shacochis is something of a writer’s travel writer. He teaches at Florida State and has won awards for his fiction – “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” won the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize — and so his latest book of essays, “Kingdoms in the Air,” could serve as a kind of career-defining collection of magazine writing from 1989 to today. It starts powerfully enough in Kathmandu in the spring of 2001.
In the opening essay — a novella-length report from the author’s trek into Upper Mustang, a previously closed-off corner of the Himalayas — Shacochis writes that the mountain city is “dazed in its green bowl of mountains, suffering from an unusually fierce heat wave and a host of maladies of its own making, the city’s pre-monsoon lethargy spiked with foreboding. Any day you expected the government to collapse under the weight of its own corruption, or the Maoists to march into the valley, or something more wicked and inconceivable to occur.”
In these first lines, you can detect some of the supple historical intelligence of Ryszard Kapuscinski, who could make you feel like any corner of Poland or Iran was unraveling in just the same fashion as Cicero’s Rome or Hippolytus’ Athens. As recently as 1947, Shacochis writes, the life expectancy in Nepal is a “prehistoric” 24 years old.
But when the essay refocuses from this wide lens to a closer look, the author feels bored and impatient, less interested in his traveling companions than the history and surroundings. Soon there’s a rash of hyphenated phrases, as if he’s so spittingly tired of the beer-swilling boors from Bangkok that he can’t pause to iron out a smoother phrasing. More important, Shacochis reveals a tight, distant frustration with how slow his wife is moving and also never fully develops the critical character of Tom Laird, the guy who gained them entry to Mustang in the first place.
“What fun to be a ne’er-do-well in Kathmandu,” Shacochis writes in a passage with faint echoes of Hunter Thompson but little new to say. “If you were a freak afoot in the world in, say, 1968, this is where you stopped, this was the end of an imaginary beginning, and there was nowhere else to go unless you were in some profound way damaged by your own restlessness: China and its cultural revolution, Southeast Asia and its wars … .”
A collection is a strange beast, and the order and tempo of things might be blamed as much as the quality of any given piece. Stuck in first gear, alarmed by the first 150 pages, you might skip forward.
Midway through the book, Shacochis comes alive on open water, when he describes a friend caught in the waves and sinking: “Prodding her up the slopes of panic was the image of being tossed around — alone and drowning, with her eyeglasses slapped from her face by the waves, cruelly blinded at the one moment when clear vision, and thus a clear head, might provide her with one small hope of survival.”
Later, this same woman — who appears in more than one story — is surrounded by birds on the prow of another ship in another storm: “There was a look of extreme delight on her rain-streaked face,” he writes. “[S]he turned toward me and nodded as if to say, How marvelous! How miraculous! The world is full of wonders. And then she retreated inside the wheelhouse to chart our position and bring us men safely through the night.”
Men who need help make reoccurring cameos. One of my favorites moments is late in the collection, when Shacohcis is desperately seeking salmon in Kamchatka, Russia. His incompetent guides, all mafia, happen to be ruthless, fish-killing caviar harvesters. But they also don’t appreciate when Shacochis uses profanity. “Don’t hurt my ears with bad words. Real men,” his host tells him, “don’t need to talk to each other this way.”
Siberia, a distant island, the tallest mountains in the world; Shacochis has seen them all. What do we ask of our travel writers? To take us somewhere and to show us why it matters. But we want them to do so beautifully and with feeling, so that we might really believe them and be inspired to make these insights our own.
“The miracle of the Himalayas is this,” Shacochis writes in a powerful moment. “Every time you look, every second you look, you are seeing the mountains, trying to believe the mountains, for the first time. There is no sense of Oh, I get it, no internal message of Been there, done that. For once in your life, the newness is eternal.”
Whatever stories endure, be they the ones from the mountains or the sea, it’s undeniably tough to travel, to be far from home, and to cut down an epic voyage into a smaller shape — for the rest of us. At worst, Shacochis seems tired of this task, annoyed by the rules of the road and the way an older body cooperates or doesn’t with these demands. But when he recaptures what I imagine is the spark that inspired his first travels, when he seems rested and ready, somewhere he cares about and wants to share, his best writing inspires us not to argue with destiny. However old we are, he suggests, if the far away beckons, “One buys a plane ticket and a bottle of Kaopectate.”
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”
Grove Press: 400 pp., $26