Scott Huler: “No-Man’s Lands”

No-Man's Lands

At the first stop the air was chilly, and the bus driver and I shared a smile. Perhaps I was in the care of Hermes, god of travelers. How would I know if Hermes had taken human form as a bus driver? What characteristics would the perfect bus driver have?

Non-fiction
Full Title: No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey Through the Odyssey
Pages: 274
First Published: 2008

Synopsis: When NPR contributor Scott Huler made one more attempt to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses, he had no idea it would launch an obsession with the book’s inspiration: the ancient Greek epic the Odyssey and the lonely homebound journey of its Everyman hero, Odysseus.

No-Man’s Lands is Huler’s funny and touching exploration of the life lessons embedded within the Odyssey, a legendary tale of wandering and longing that could be read as a veritable guidebook for middle-aged men everywhere. At age forty-four, with his first child on the way, Huler felt an instant bond with Odysseus, who fought for some twenty years against formidable difficulties to return home to his beloved wife and son. In reading the Odyssey, Huler saw the chance to experience a great vicarious adventure as well as the opportunity to assess the man he had become and embrace the imminent arrival of both middle age and parenthood.

But Huler realized that it wasn’t enough to simply read the words on the page – he needed to live Odysseus’s odyssey, to visit the exotic destinations that make Homer’s story so timeless. And so an ambitious pilgrimage was born … traveling the entire length of Odysseus’s two-decade journey. In six months.

Huler doggedly retraced Odysseus’s every step, from the ancient ruins of Troy to his ultimate destination in Ithaca. On the way, he discovers the Cyclops’s Sicilian cave, visits the land of the dead in Italy, ponders the lotus from a Tunisian resort, and paddles a rented kayak between Scylla and Charybdis and lives to tell the tale. He writes of how and why the lessons of the Odyssey – the perils of ambition, the emptiness of glory, the value of love and family – continue to resonate so deeply with readers thousands of years later. And as he finally closes in on Odysseus’s final destination, he learns to fully appreciate what Homer has been saying all along: the greatest adventures of all are the ones that bring us home to those we love.

Part travelogue, part memoir, and part critical reading of the greatest adventure epic ever written, No-Man’s Lands is an extraordinary description of two journeys – one ancient, one contemporary – and reveals what the Odyssey can teach us about being better bosses, better teachers, better parents, and better people.

No shortage of places for the Odyssey pilgrim to visit, and once you’re on Ithaca, you can find them all. In fact, you can find each of them several different places and on several different islands. What, you thought that just because Odysseus lived on a Greek island called Ithaca and there’s still a Greek island called Ithaca that the search was over? Have you been paying no attention at all?

Review: I think my favourite thing about the above summary is how it tries to impress us with Huler’s plan to fit twenty years of travel into six months, conveniently forgetting to mention that for at least eighteen of those twenty years, Odysseus wasn’t moving.

In truth I don’t have much to say about No-Man’s Lands, but perhaps a shorter post once in a while isn’t a bad thing. Basically: I really, really enjoyed this book. It’s funny, intelligent and readable and I whipped through it in three days. I don’t always love modern travel literature, but happily this book avoided most of the annoyances I have with the genre. As a foreign language major, I am most excited to report that after only a few instances of “I went to a foreign country of my own volition and now I’m going to complain about not being able to read anything,” Huler made a good effort to speak to the locals in their own languages.

While I might not completely agree with Huler’s interpretations of Homer (e.g. I’m not entirely convinced that the Odyssey was intended to be a collection of lessons), I really enjoyed reading them. I liked his musings on why the Odyssey is still relevant, especially the passages where he compares it to various pop culture phenomena, and I got a kick out of his attempts to craft a Homeric epithet for himself.

Sprinkled throughout the book are summaries of the work that’s been done in an attempt to figure out where, exactly, Odysseus went. I find all of it really interesting but I can also appreciate Huler’s somewhat casual approach to the task of deciding which line of argument he should follow when choosing his destinations. After all, as he argues, perhaps it’s just not possible to figure out where a man who may or may not have existed may or may not have traveled, especially when we’re talking about a poem that includes a trip to the Underworld. Having said that, though, my favourite part of this book was learning a bit about how Odysseus has (or has not) made a mark on the areas he’s said to have passed through, and whether or not he’s still present in the minds of the people who live there.

Unfortunately, I do have a few complaints. I know that keeping Huler’s trip connected to the Odyssey is the point of the book, but there were definitely parts where it felt like a stretch to say “This reminded me of that part in the Odyssey when …” I would have been more than okay if Huler had written about his experiences without feeling required to compare every single one of them to the poem. I was also thrown off by a couple of his odder musings, most notably the one in which he claims that the reason men fight is because they can’t give birth. Because … that’s ridiculous.

I also felt that not including photos in this book was an odd choice. The edition I read included a few small (uncaptioned) photos on the title page; after that, Huler talked about taking pictures but none were included and there wasn’t even a note to encourage readers to check out the photo album on the book’s web site. I don’t know why the photos were left out of the book but I definitely missed them.

Even with those criticisms, I did really enjoy No-Man’s Lands, and it ended on a great line that still makes me smile when I think of it. My first thought when I finished reading the book was “I look forward to rereading that someday.” Whether or not I actually will is another question entirely, but still, I think that’s pretty high praise.

Also: the title is a pun. I mention this because I was halfway through the book before I realized it, and would like to save you from the same embarrassment.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Queen Anne’s lace grew in the weedy places, and the blossoms bob and twirl in the wind. For ten years that wind would have been the constant companion of Odysseus as he racked his brain to solve the impenetrable riddle of the conflict. Whether those ten years were fictional or real seemed utterly beside the point: The wind was real – eternal and real.

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