Nonfiction (Misc)

Review of The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy

This was a rare nonfiction read for me, and I really enjoyed it.  It’s a nice mix of travel, memoir, love story, and soul searching.  Let me say right off the bat: this isn’t the deepest book you’ll read this year, but ultimately it worked for me because I really liked McCarthy.

The book starts out with a short recount of the McCarthy you know – his quick rise from anonymity to a role in the 80’s film Class, to being a member of the “Brat Pack” and starring in Pretty in Pink.  And then there’s the McCarthy you don’t know but could have predicted – alcoholism, shunning fame, and then emerging into sobriety to find out the 80’s have left him behind.

But the cool part of the story is how he finds himself by traveling, takes a chance at becoming a travel writer, and becomes pretty successful (he’s an editor-at-large for National Geographic’s Travel magazine).

My cynical side reminds me that without his Brat Pack fame and money, he’d never be able to live the dream that is travel writing.  I took a writing class once where they said, two writing jobs everyone wants but you have to be famous to break into are children’s books and travel writing.  Did Nat Geo take a chance on McCarthy because he has a famous face?  Sure, probably.  Is he one of the only people out there that can afford a career writing magazine articles?  Yes.  But still, I have to think writing for National Geographic takes talent.

Here’s what I didn’t love about this book:  its pre-determined “home is where the heart is” conclusion.  Before you pick up the book you know this is about a guy who travels around the world to find “the courage to settle down”.  Which would be easier to swallow if I didn’t find the fiancée somewhat unlikable.  I’m sure it’s not her, just how he writes about her.  But if I didn’t know going in that McCarthy was going to come out happily married, I would have sworn, halfway into the book, that instead this is the book where he finds the courage to tell his clingy fiancée he’s just not that into her.

And what annoyed me about that is, he’s already had a child with this woman (strangely referred to only as D, even though full name and pics are in the back of the book), and is also raising his son from a previous marriage with her.  I kept thinking, “buddy, the time to worry about commitment is LONG past”.  But then I remind myself that two people can have kids and not really love each other, or not marry each other.  But still, marrying the woman who’s raising two of your kids while you sail around the world is sort of a no-brainer.

Oddly, even though McCarthy portrays himself as a somewhat neglectful parent and partner, I liked him.  Why?  Because despite his luck of having two dream jobs in one lifetime, I really identified with his insecurity and nervousness.  He says in the beginning of the book that his 80s movies were successful because that stammering shy guy he always played is who he is.  So he might be a master traveler, but he’s not mister life-of-the-party, the guy who makes friends wherever he goes.  Rather, he likes the solitude and introspection of travel.  He doesn’t want to have dinner with people he doesn’t know, but he’s perfectly comfortable climbing icebergs or hiking into the Amazon.  I could respect that.  When he gets stuck on a boat trip full of forced socializing, I felt his pain — and his need to run off as soon as dinner was over so he could have some time to himself.

This book made me think about the kind of traveler I am, and want to be.  I’m a fairly conventional, safe traveler, and even though I’d love to be more adventurous and see more parts of the world, I’m proud of where I’ve been.  My husband and I really think about the kinds of travelers we want to be – we’re not the kind of travelers who get to know strangers but we do try to be respectful and open to new experiences.  In other words, we try not to be Ugly Americans.  We may look ugly in our comfy walking shoes and PacSafe bags – but we try to be thoughtful travelers.

I say try because it’s not easy to balance the line between going places you’ve always wanted to see, like Italy and Greece, and experiencing remote and unusual parts of the world.  It’s also not easy to balance our ability to stay in nice hotels with the desire to be a little more “grounded”.  And then there’s the desire to meet people on our travels balanced with our terror of being stuck for days with a tour group we don’t have anything in common with.  There’s my own conflict between being adequately spontaneous but still planning a trip that maximizes our limited time.  Do we see the sites recommended by the guide book or set out on our own adventure?

I know, if that’s what I worry about, I’m lucky.  I completely agree.  The ability to travel is something I cherish.  I’m just saying that being the kind of traveler I want to be isn’t as simple as it sounds.

Travel isn’t just about seeing and trying new things, although it’s definitely that.  For me it’s also a great chance to step away from daily life for a little bit.  I find that distance really helps me reflect on where I’m going and what I need.  I also love the time I get to spend with the husband, where we can really enjoy each other’s company away from things like work, housecleaning, groceries, etc.  Every time we go on a long trip I think, can we spend 24 hours a day for two weeks together – and when you travel you’re really together – and I’m always happy to find that the answer is a definite yes.

Which is why I enjoyed reading McCarthy’s perspective on traveling.  He tells a great story in all the places he visits, from Patagonia to Costa Rica, yet it never sounds like something I couldn’t do.  Sure, he has the resources of National Geographic, while I have my husband and my Rick Steve’s tour book (in Europe at least).

So, to sum up this rambling review, I’ll just say I was unmoved when it came to McCarthy’s epiphany (clearly stated in the title of the book) that going home to someone who loves you is the best part of travel.  I already knew that.  But I did enjoy reading about all the parts of the world he visits, and seeing the world through the eyes of someone who basically has my dream job, plus the time and the courage to enjoy it.  Sure, getting married takes courage.  But so does seeing the world.  McCarthy just has to balance the two.

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