Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Precious wanderings

Posted By on Wed, Dec 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

John Gimlette’s a regular contributor to Condé Nast Traveler and author of At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, a previous travelogue through Peru. In Theatre of Fish, Gimlette follows his intrepid great-grandfather — a medic tagging along with a missionary — through the untamed wilds of Newfoundland and Labrador. It seems like the author has a rich subject and a built-in narrative. This should be a home run, right? Not exactly.

To say Newfoundland is strange is a colossal understatement. This island, which is part of a Canadian province also including the mainland sector of Labrador, is a place where fish were once used as currency and seal-clubbing is still a viable, if vaguely shameful, means of survival. Its beauty, charm and barren strangeness are legendary. These characteristics have been documented in such books as E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.

Newfoundland is like a mini-Australia, plopped in the North Atlantic and set spinning by the forces of history. Churchill, Earhart and Marconi all add to the texture of its tale, but this author rightfully keeps historical events in perspective as he pursues the ultimately stranger tale of Newfoundlanders who are hidden away in distant burgs licked by the sea.

Problem is, he suffers from a sort of writerly narcissism. Too often, Gimlette doesn’t take the time to let the reader live in the moment. For every 10 attempts to capture the mystery of the island, nine get lost in fits of navel-gazing or Anglophilia that bog down the work so badly you just want to turn out the light and try again in the morning. But even by the bright light of a new day, Gimlette is too impressed with his own turns of phrase to realize that if he just got out of the way, this could be a ripping good yarn. Nearly every time he latches onto the kind of cultural nugget or fascinating character around which a deceptively simple travel writer like Bill Bryson could base an entire chapter, he trips over himself to keep up with an untenable structure. Gimlette clumsily strings together present day observation, historical hound-dogging and amateur anthropology or sociology. His accounts of local bars and motels are often summed up by wine criticism. In just one brutally unsatisfying case, he reduces a bus trip across the island accompanied by Newf welfare cheats to a couple of digs at their alcohol consumption and fashion.

If you have a high tolerance for narrative ADD and self-satisfied language, Theatre of Fish is a worthwhile read. By the sheer volume of stories collected, Gimlette does hit on a few anecdotal gems. But when you’re shining a light on an outpost of humanity such as Newfoundland, you’d better do more than that.

Chris Handyside writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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