WHEN IT COMES TO TRAVEL WRITING, Jeffrey Tayler is the opposite of, say, Frances Mayes. Mayes has made a fortune writing about the good life in Italy. Tayler has made something less than a fortune writing about off-the-beaten-path locales such as the Congo and the Sahara, where to call life “good” might require redefining the word.
For his latest travel book, Tayler doesn’t ease up. He and a guide, the sometimes morose but ultimately heroic Vadim, steer a custom-made raft 2,400 miles down the Lena River, the world’s tenth longest. They begin near Lake Baikal in Siberia and finish, two months later, in Tiksi, on the Arctic Ocean. En route, they stop on the shores of a dozen or so towns and villages. While Vadim tends to their campsite for company, he prefers nature over humans Tayler befriends numerous colorful locals, whose stories add up to an informal portrait of Siberia today.
The funniest of his encounters is with a Yakut shaman, who concludes his blessing of Tayler with: “May you find peace. May you succeed in your journey. May you tell other Americans about the House of Archy, soon to appear on the Internet at www.domarchy.ru! The end!”
Other memorable encounters include a visit with German survivors of Stalin’s deportations during World War II and a to-bribe-or-not-to-bribe showdown with a man named Petrov from the Tiksi Department of the Ministry of the Protection of Nature.
What Tayler finds in all the towns and villages he visits is alcohol, which the population uses as a tonic to their hard lives. Tayler asks one woman what people in Tiksi do besides drink in bars. “Drink at home,” she replies. “There’re no cinemas and no theaters. When we go out here, we drink. And when we stay in, we drink.”
The title of the book suggests that the volatile Lena River represents the most dangerous encounter Tayler faces on his journey. There is truth to this. Particularly in the latter half of the journey, the Lena becomes riotous, throwing seven-foot waves at Tayler’s craft and soaking him and Vadim with chilling water. Had they capsized, they would have been hard pressed to survive. But for much of the book, Tayler and Vadim’s relationship to the river is relatively serene.
What isn’t always serene is the relationship between Tayler and Vadim, a veteran of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. Vadim is opinionated to the point of dogma, and when Tayler challenges his assumptions, Vadim doesn’t yield:
“I need to have another person along with me that I can express my love of the taiga to,” Vadim said. “I can’t bear it alone. The north! Tell me, how could anyone want to live anywhere else?”
“It is beautiful, you’re right.”
“I’m asking you a question: tell me, why would anyone want to live anywhere else? I detest all those idiots who spend their salary on beach vacations so they can bronze their asses on the Mediterranean.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call them idiots. Different people ”
“They are idiots….”
Their relationship never reaches a tipping point, however. And, indeed, Vadim ultimately seems like a guy anyone would like to have around in a tough situation. And he cooks!
The success of nonfiction writing depends on the drama of real life. Would the best-seller lists have seen the likes of Jon Krakhauer’s Into Thin Air if the expedition he was on to the top of Mount Everest had gone off without a hitch? And what would Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil have been without a murder? Midnight in the Garden of Everyday Life?
If on Tayler’s trip down the Lena River, Vadim had engaged him in a duel or the two men had been forced by bad weather to camp in the wilderness for months, living off bear meat and icicles, Tayler might have had a better chance to see his book on the best-seller list.
As it is, he’ll have to be satisfied knowing he’s written an engaging, often gripping, portrait of a fascinating (and little understood) part of the world.