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Book review: Russell Banks fills ‘Voyager’ with a sense of wander

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Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

Voyager: Travel Writings By Russell Banks, $26.

Travel writing can be the best kind of travel reading. After all, whether you’re cruising at 35,000 feet or at sea level, killing hours between connections or sprawling on a beach blanket, you’re indulging in the ancient urge to flee your home awhile, and books about others doing the same thing help take you even farther away. But they can also bring you closer to home truths.

Novelist Russell Banks proves himself a worthy companion, both for his journeys and yours, in Voyager: Travel Writings. Like the best travel writers, he blends descriptions of settings, observations about customs and personal narratives in these tales, some versions of which have appeared in magazines like Condé Nast Traveler and National Geographic.

If the life-as-journey metaphor is clichéd, it’s because there’s something to it, and Banks’s life is a good example. Escaping dysfunctional family, untenable marriages and sometimes himself, Banks has been a lifelong wanderer, starting with driving a stolen car across the country as a teenager. Barely more than a teen, he left New England for Florida, got married for the first of four times and brought his bride back to Boston. Months later, she left him and returned to Florida.

Travel requires some concentration on logistics, which can block out other concerns, as Banks notes in Part One, in which he and prospective wife No. 4 visit nearly every Caribbean island while he relates to her the stories behind the three preceding unions. Needing to shift focus every few days is a relief for Banks, who admits it has become a mode of life: “It has allowed me to keep on telling the truth, while avoiding anything that resembled a confession.”

Perhaps some confession is in order, for, while he is hard enough on himself, he tags his ex-wives with “simple unchecked hunger for universal centrality,” which seems a cop-out. But he remains with wife four, after 30 years or so, and their trip to Edinburgh to get married is one of the book’s livelier tales.

Elsewhere, though, Banks’s lyrically evocative descriptions vie with melancholy about the world and people. Viewing a nearly extinct bird on a Seychelles island or driving a Hummer through Alaska, he knows he’s contributing to environmental degradation. “The elegiac mode is the only appropriate form for our attention now,” Banks concludes. Yes, and travel can distract us or teach us what we need to learn.

For more by Chuck Twardy, visit chucktwardy.com.

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