A few years ago, Tom Bissell and Gideon Lewis-Kraus were troubled and aimless in Estonia and then they went on a very long walk. Tom—with notable passivity—said that his life was "spinning out of control." Gideon went along for a bit of that ride, entering into a period of advanced and chaotic inebriation. Now they both have books out. They are essentially about the same thing: What do we do with our hours? How shall we make things? Why are humans so wonderfully ridiculous?
Tom's, Magic Hours, is a collection of essays from the last decade, really very loosely about creation, particularly the making of movies and books, and the troubles of doing so, which is a nice capstone to his period of having problems making things. Gideon's, A Sense of Direction, is an account of three pilgrimages, the first of which, El Camino del Santiago, was the long walk he undertook with Tom.
Gideon had been living in Berlin, as you do. He glosses over the foundational activities of their then-new friendship. Tom, by his own far more direct account, had, by 2008, a "sacramental devotion to marijuana," and while in Estonia had embraced a likely less ritualized love for cocaine. Gideon seems like the type to indulge in what everyone else is indulging in, part of his own specific problem with ... it's less clear? He had a fear that he would accidentally live a staid or incorrect life and come to regret it, so he was following will-o’-the-wisps around Berlin to raves and to openings to make sure that he didn't. He was burdened with the story of his father, a rabbi, who, late in Gideon's teens, left his mother for a man and immediately bought a lot of very gay clothes. Gideon’s questions, quite reasonably, include: Is my very existence the result of a deeply regretted life?
So Tom and Gideon walk this very long walk across Spain. A good and appealing idea! Gideon vows to take a break from drinking during the walk and ... almost does so. (That's what they call a "red flag" in the rehab biz.) Tom's feet become mutilated with blisters. This is all exceedingly recent history. Gideon was born Jan. 12, 1980, which means he is 32 today. He had moved to Berlin at 27; he turns 30 in the book. (Tom was born in 1974— an interesting tiny margin of generational divide.) They annoy each other; they take copious notes about every rock and fellow pilgrim; they take notes about each other taking notes.
Within a year, Gideon made a lone pilgrimage in Japan. And then not long thereafter, he and his father and his brother set off for Ukraine, for the really horrible-sounding Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage of Hasidim to the grave of Rebbe Nachman. Throughout the course of the book, the pilgrimages move from aimless process to book-writing process, a neat and also necessary meta-trick. That the final pilgrimage is Jew-oriented and overtly intended to resolve his issues with his father is appropriately stagey.
There is something quite disturbing in the way in which Gideon writes about his father, who is a bundle of secrets and half-muttered truths and glancing drive-bys of information. This is Gideon's chief complaint about his father's behavior— but also the way that he chooses to inform us about the man. Because of this delivery method, the picture of his father is looming and monstrous but vague. He sketches a menacing Big Dad figure: He threw things, was capricious and prone to rage, was eccentric and frightening, was charming and hilarious but moreover unknowable in the way of fathers. What's striking is that Gideon was unable to lay this out more directly: He cannot bring himself to sit down and write direct pages to relay what kind of menace his father was, and how that changed over time. In part this was likely to protect his father and/but also this is a 6-year-old's depiction of a parent. (Five cents please!)
"There are a couple things in there, which in a perfect world, I would possibly ask him to change—I don't think they’re entirely accurate. On the other hand, that’s not my place. Look, I think the book is amazing. I cried through most of it. It’s nice to see Gideon in a different light. And there’s nothing in there that’s not accurate."
Emphasis mine, though the reporter also jumped on it. For the record, if one of my parents said that to a reporter, I would immediately book three special bonus-length sessions with a therapist just to bang my head against those words until I could laugh again.
How do you please a father? Beats me! Most of us assemble minor father figures and please them instead. That's why, when you read both these books at the same time, you feel a little sad that Gideon isn't in Tom's book too. (Not even in the acknowledgments!) But Tom wrote a very nice and funny review in GQ of Gideon's book. It is headlined "I Am the Star of Your Memoir." So, mission accomplished.