This new collection of short stories by travel writer Kathleen Lee should come with a warning. She has nailed with exquisite precision the reasons some of us can't resist leaving home, and reading them could start something.
Travel among Men is the fiction debut for Lee, who has written for Condé Nast Traveler and who was featured in Best American Travel Writing 2000. With 20 years of experience in Asia, South America and the Middle East, she brings to this work a raft of cultural observations; visual, tactile, and olfactory details; and wanderer's musings.
Of the eight stories in the collection, most take place in locations off the flush-toilet-destination list--Pakistan, Tashkent, China, Egypt. Her characters have generally not been coerced into their trips--they've chosen, for reasons sometimes vague, separation from their U.S. home, and the unavoidable attendant complications. While some of them find themselves in moderate danger or at odds with companions, the conflicts in the stories are internal--provoked by the "wherever you go, there you are" reality--and are resolved with a release of or a reckoning with the ego.
In the title story, central character Lili, who has been on the road for more than 10 months, is heading over the Khyber Pass to the Pakistan-Afghan border. Lili has scabs on her scalp and parasites in her belly, and she's crammed into the back of a jeep between a jaded Frenchman she vaguely regrets having had sex with and a sensitive Guatemalan who hopes he's next in line. Wedged behind them are ammunition crates, bags of lentils and a slab of raw goat meat--complete with head and hoofs.
While the story could well be about the perils of the trip--reckless driving, rutted roads, precipitous drops, the inherent risks of the area in 1987--these aren't Lee's focus. The central conflicts ("conflict" is almost too hard-edged a word) relate to essential human yearning: the nature of desire, tension between the need for solitude and craving for connection, the straining for intercultural understanding. And the impulse to let borders shape one's life.
A vague, dreamy, mental meandering broken by a moment of unexpected clarity marks all of the stories.
In "Mapping the River," San Franciscan Annette, who seems to have gone through men as if they were port calls, is taking a boat trip up the Yangtze. Her public objective is the see the Yangtze gorges; her stated private objective is to get over breaking up with her latest boyfriend. But her barely articulated primary objective is to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy.
Lee surfaces Annette's dilemma by putting her through the China experience: bafflement at the simplest transactions--sign-reading, ticket-buying, currency comprehension--and the phenomenon of simultaneously attracting hordes of mute, staring Chinese, and feeling utterly alone. The river cruise is a natural metaphor for Annette's life, floating by family units, resisting engaging.
Annette's reluctance to drop social and cultural barriers, her clinging to self-absorbed isolation, is the source of the conflict in this story. It's her unlikely encounter on deck with two badly made-up women interested in contraception and Annette's haired arm that begins to fell her defenses.
The "plague of restlessness" that keeps Lee's characters lurching over third-world roads does not always bring out admirable qualities. When the central character in "Ugly Man Turning into the Setting Sun" is put on professional notice to get treated for alcoholism, he thumbs his nose, buys "a one-way ticket to Hong Kong" and decides, at 40 years old, " to be aimless." His aimlessness results in someone's death. Vicki, in "Foreign Relations," enters so completely into traveler-common immature behavior that she ends up in an adolescent make-out session with her hosts' much-younger son.
Lee's stories are gems of world observation. Complex, almost amorphous, ambiguous, they're told in prose that runs from photograph-gritty to transcendently lyrical. While they concern issues of cultural and personal discovery, they're not resolved with easy revelation. Rather, they represent lifelong journeys relieved briefly by moments of epiphanous grace:
"...Beth looked into her teacup, a clump of dark leaves swelling at the bottom of the amber-colored water, her hand curled above the handleless cup, the lacy etching of lines in the skin, the strength and grace of her fingers. The narrow base of the cup rising upward and the turning at the top like a palm held or lips parting. Conversation soared around them, the back of the throat sounds of Uighur, the falling and rising shrillness of Mandarin.... The present felt dense, impermeable, and for several pleasurable moments, she had that peaceful feeling of being without history."
Read the collection. It'll transport you. But don't say you weren't warned, if you're tempted to begin thumbing through travel guides or start eyeing your favorite carry-on.