When I was in high school, my parents returned from a Florida vacation with a paperback copy of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" purchased at the Hemingway House in Key West. I was just becoming passionate about books, and the gift struck a deep chord. I vowed I would someday see Hemingway's house myself.
Anne Trubek, author of "A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses," might advise against visiting Key West. "Going to a writer's house is a fool's errand," she warns. It is a curious beginning, but then everything about this "guide" is -- in the best sense -- curious.
It doesn't take long to realize that Trubek is more a fellow traveler than guide, one ready to prove herself wrong. And indeed there is nothing foolish about her quest. On the contrary, it is a blazingly intelligent romp, full of humor and hard-won wisdom. Part literary history, part travelogue and part personal essay, "A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses" crisscrosses the country in search of epiphanies on the doorsteps of some of our more important writers.
Moments of transcendence are in short supply, though. With few exceptions, the writers' houses Trubek visits are dilapidated, or phony, or worse. But even as her skepticism finds validation nearly everywhere she goes, it also forces her to confront her own preconceptions about what makes meaning in literature and in life. It is in these sections, where the author's reading life and personal experience merge with her visits to writers' houses, that her intelligence and artistry shine brightest.
The most moving chapter centers on little-known poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose house in Dayton, Ohio, was preserved by his adoring mother. Trubek observes: "I love [the Dunbar house] because it is full of just the longing that I am seeking in these small museums." It's no coincidence that her longing is tied to a copy of Dunbar's novel "The Uncalled," a book Trubek found in a used bookstore and treasures deeply. Nor is it a coincidence that the home is authentically reflective of Dunbar's life and work.
After experiencing all that is wrong with writers' houses in Key West, Trubek visits Ketchum, Idaho. Suffering a kind of vertigo in the room where Hemingway committed suicide, she wonders, "What is one supposed to feel in such a place? ... What questions was I supposed to ask?" Trubek's opinion seems to be that the feelings these places elicit are more important than the answers to any questions we might devise.
Maybe I'll make my Hemingway pilgrimage to Ketchum instead of Key West in search of just such a feeling. I bet Anne Trubek would approve.
Peter Geye is the author of the novel "Safe From the Sea." He lives in Minneapolis.