Journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus confronts his quarter-life malaise—the urban ennui of the over-privileged and over-educated standing in line for designer cupcakes—by seeking out the radical simplicity of pilgrimage. For centuries, religious pilgrims have hit the road to Canterbury or Mecca or Mount Meru seeking divine guidance; what Lewis-Kraus seeks instead is a sense of life’s purpose.
Or at least that’s what he starts out thinking. Walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago offers Lewis-Kraus an alternative to his meaningless, but entertaining, life on the Berlin party circuit. Traveling with his friend, the writer Tom Bissell, the two spend 39 days following the yellow arrows marking their way across Spain. There are no decisions to make. Their feet blister and ache. They quarrel and make up, flirt with other pilgrims and talk endlessly, and hilariously, about their lives. The experience of walking with a sense of direction proves so life-saving that Lewis-Kraus embarks on a second, more difficult, solo pilgrimage around the 88 temples of the Japanese island of Shikoku.
The true heart of A Sense of Direction concerns Lewis-Kraus’ deepening relationship with his father, a former rabbi who came out as gay when he was 46. These pilgrimages offer Lewis-Kraus a pretext to dig into his old anger at his father’s deceptions and lies, and prompt him to seek a renewed relationship with him. A third pilgrimage, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the Ukraine at what one Orthodox participant calls “The Jewish Burning Man,” provides the emotionally satisfying climax to this memoir: Joined by his father and brother, Lewis-Kraus practices the art of listening and forgiveness, finding what he was perhaps looking for all along.
A Sense of Directionis a deeply intelligent, often funny memoir about finding a sense of purpose through walking in the centuries-old footsteps of religious pilgrims. But it is also a sensitive and nuanced coming-of-age memoir about fathers and sons, and about confronting the past in order to be free to move, unencumbered, into the future.