Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s generically titled A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful is an amiable and at times vivid account of the author’s time on a succession of eclectic secular pilgrimages: in Spain; on a remote Japanese island; to central Ukraine.
First Lewis-Kraus embarks on the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage route that stretches across Northern Spain. Lewis-Kraus, who was in his late twenties at the time, presents his decision to embark on the trip as a whim. Yet from the outset he is preoccupied with transforming his experience into narrative, a task that grows into a friendly rivalry with his companion, the writer Tom Bissell:
I’m suddenly afraid that he’s noticing more than I am, making more unusual and interesting observations about the scenery and the conversation; so, in an effort to catch up, I jot down a bunch of lush descriptions of the mist and the narrow mud path.
Here we see the writer’s vocation as both meaning-making frame and distraction from experience. Toward the end of the Camino, Lewis-Kraus pauses to reflect on the problems inherent to the genre of pilgrimage memoir, which “demands either fulfillment or disillusion.” Since Lewis-Kraus’s approach is to announce the limitations of his narrative at the outset, his Camino narrative falls into neither camp: no big disappointments, but no big revelations, either.
Unlike the widely popularized Camino, the circle of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the island of Shikoku is primarily undertaken by Japanese retirees. It’s a lonely stretch for Lewis-Kraus. He completes most of this trip solo, though he starts the first stage with his sweet-natured grandfather, Max. Max quips along the way that the route is “like doing a pilgrimage along the side of Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey.”
The narrative lags in this middle section, mirroring the banality of the scenery. As the Shikoku circuit progresses, Lewis-Kraus feels self-discovery fatigue, and realizes that the pilgrim’s desires for authenticity and transcendence are both potentially greedy impulses. Lewis-Kraus is dogged in his commitment to fleet-footed storytelling and witty anecdotes, but he becomes a tiresome companion as he settles into the familiar routine of fresh blisters and refreshing his email on this pilgrimage part two. Take this passage, for example:
I look around the temple I’ve broken into and strewn with my wet pilgrim effects, take a moment to apologize for my trespasses to the decent, hardworking hill people of Shikoku; the industrious and quietly suffering citizens of the economically stagnant nation of Japan; and, furthermore, to anyone who has ever owned a Walkman or watched animated pornography.
With the flippant confessional tone of passages like the above, Lewis-Kraus appears to have drawn too much and too comfortable from his lengthy dispatches back home. The book’s tone and structure take for granted that its readers, like friends and relatives, already find the miscellany of Lewis-Kraus’s experiences and interests winning.
The most fundamental flaw of A Sense of Direction, however, is not the style but the concept: the idea that three pilgrimages is better than one; that three pilgrimages equals three times the enlightenment for the writer and therefore three times the payoff for readers. Perhaps this structure would have been more effective at the hands of another writer more deeply interested in, say, the history of each route and the culture of each place.
The book does hit its stride in Uman, Ukraine, the location of a Hasidic pilgrimage site during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Lewis-Kraus’s broad-stroke description of forty thousand black hats descending on one post-Soviet town is entertaining, though it’s not the reason the section is successful. It’s also the first glimpse of a modern-day pilgrimage that is strictly religious:
These were pilgrims who had a perfectly good idea what their lives looked like at home; their hours were micromanaged by scriptural obligation from sunrise to sleep. . . . They were here to go beyond the fields for three days a year, to take a short and uniquely authorized break from the responsibilities of home, such that they might return to their seamlessly circumscribed lives with renewed vigor in compliance.
The heart of the Uman trip is Lewis-Kraus’s relationship with his father, a gay rabbi who only came out in midlife. The father is, like Lewis-Kraus himself, a compelling and frustrating character. He is a man whose formerly repressed desires now translate into a strong sense of entitlement. Lewis-Kraus is at his most honest and insightful recording the range of emotions he feels towards his dad, from the seemingly trivial to the clearly big. At one point Lewis-Kraus admits to imagining for his father a “dream pedigree . . . that looked to White and Genet and not Will & Grace” so that “if he’d had a secret life, it could at least have been an exciting one, something worth escaping his surface life for.”
The portrait of the son studying the father is poignant, but not quite enough to anchor a book in which most characters float on and off the page with little development. And for a book so tied to place, the landscape always feels only sketched in, more often than not just a mention of mist or a brief reference to a narrow path.
Pilgrimage, whether or not it is religious, is about taking oneself out of everyday life and into a new realm where the old rules no longer stand. In A Sense of Direction Lewis-Kraus chronicles the moments of transformation as well as the persistence of petty concerns. This pilgrimage memoir doesn’t fall into the trap of tidy conversion story or cold spiritual debunking. But it does leave something to be desired. It’s tempting to call what it’s lacking a sense of direction.