In the last piece in his new collection of travel writing, Russell Banks is 72 and spry when he hikes to the top of an 18,000-foot peak in Nepal. In another entry, he’s 46 and ambivalent as he heads to a reunion of college friends in North Carolina. And in the episodic title essay, he’s an established middle-aged author in the Lesser Antilles, courting the woman who will become his fourth wife and recalling his days as a 19-year-old newlywed in New England and a thirty-something expat in Jamaica.
True to its name, “Voyager” takes the reader on a global tour. It includes magnificently written reports from Senegal, Ecuador and Scotland, the Himalayas, the Andes and the Seychelles. It’s a notably personal work, too. The lauded author of “Continental Drift,” “Cloudsplitter” and more than a dozen other novels, Banks has never before published a full-length memoir. This introspective book goes a long way toward plugging that gap.
The best of these essays have an elegiac quality. Climbing a mountain in a remote part of Asia, Banks realizes that in his eighth decade, he’s suffering from “lion-in-winter syndrome.” He elaborates on this theme in another chapter: “As I write this, I’ve recently turned seventy-five, and while I’m not close enough to death’s shore yet to see the waves break, I hear them smack the sand.”
His awareness of his own mortality dovetails with Banks’ ecological concerns. Hoping to get a look at “the planet as it was before we started killing it,” he visits the Everglades and writes an evocative paean to its timeless natural diversity: “A rough carpet of water lilies — clenched, fist-sized buds about to bloom — floats on the surface. … A dark blue racer snake slides into the brush. … It’s mid-May, yes — but what century?”
Of 10 total chapters, nine are 30 pages or fewer. The one exception is the title essay, which takes up almost half the book and follows Banks and his current wife on a busy Caribbean jaunt.
A nimble, if occasionally tone-deaf blend of autobiography, history and nature writing, “Voyager” is his most personal essay, as Banks reckons with his choppy romantic past. Though he concedes that he “drove … away” his first wife — both were teens when they married — and was similarly negligent during his second and third marriages, he can also be needlessly caustic. Remarking on his three exes, he complains about “the fundamental contradiction of their needing to be both the center of the universe and the universe itself, and their inability to acknowledge any metaphysical difference between the two.”
But look past his awkward self-justifications and you’ll find that Banks writes with erudition and depth about important subjects. “Thirty islands in sixty days” — that’s the itinerary in this long piece, and along the way, he explores historical epochs defined by colonialism and slavery; the economic, environmental and social effects of modern tourism, and the “contrast between the overabundant physical beauty of sea and land and sky and the grinding poverty of most of the people who live out their lives here.”
Though it spans six decades of Banks’ life, “Voyager” isn’t exactly a full-on memoir. Nonetheless, it’s lively and revealing, a worthy, if minor addition to Banks’ impressive body of work.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
By: Russell Banks.
Publisher: Ecco, 272 pages, $25.99.