Travel books generally adhere to one of two camps: the promotional (go here, see this, don't miss) and the vicarious (sagas of astounding adventures few would dream of trying to duplicate). The new Crown Journeys series, which debuts this month with a pair of titles from Edwidge Danticat and Michael Cunningham, assays an offbeat category: The ruminative. The idea is to pair a litterateur with a setting he or she finds especially evocative and to create an extended, moseying-around essay a walk," both literal and figurative. Forthcoming matches include Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) on Mexico, Myla Goldberg (Bee Season) on Prague, Christopher Buckley on Washington, D.C., and Roy Blount Jr. on New Orleans. Intriguing as the prospects may be, the two initial titles raise some interesting questions, such as: Can an author be too close to a subject, so entwined as to neglect the need to reach out to the reader? Might a writer accustomed to spinning fiction lose his or her way without a narrative thread? In After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti, Edwige Danticat, who has probed her conflicted relationship with her natal land in such novels as Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones maintains a sense of suspense by playing up her dread of actually attending carnival. Little wonder she's apprehensive, having been raised on her Baptist minister uncle's warnings that People always hurt themselves during carnival gyrating with so much abandon that they would dislocate their hips and shoulders and lose their voices while singing too loudly." Further, the author is warned, Not only could one be punched, stabbed, pummeled, or shot during carnival, young girls could be freely fondled, squeezed like sponges by dirty old, and not so old, men."Danticat has returned to the island as an adult with a journalistic mission to cover carnival, but the nervous girl in her makes her approach the task perhaps too portentously. She interviews officials, quotes poets from Ovid to Octavio Paz, and takes preparatory field trips: to a cemetery, to the final resting place of a rusting steam engine (sought out as a symbol of 19th-century industrial Jacmel"), to an art show of carnival masks, to a remote and rare forest (much of Haiti has long since been stripped, largely for fuel, and partly to rout out revolutionaries). Then finally, 127 pages into the book, she faces up to the dreaded day.
Is the wait worth it? Retroactively, yes. Impatience melts as you realize how carefully, while seeming to dance around the topic, Danticat has laid the groundwork for witnessing the event and beginning to understand it. Carnival, as she describes it, is frightening: The image of an AIDS-awareness activist, for instance, who growls with blackened teeth and flashes blood-stained panties is indelibly disturbing. The gathering is also clearly cathartic, not only for the locals who yearly confront their demons (both traditional and modern) and celebrate a cycle of renewal, but also for visitors, as well, including the many Haitians who, like Danticat, have had to move abroad and yearn to recapture a sense of belonging.
Provincetown, that artsy sand-spit at the tip of Cape Cod which has served for centuries as an eccentric's sanctuary" in Michael Cunningham's apt phrase, is a far less foreboding place than Danticat's Haiti. In fact, he asserts in Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown ($16, 176 pages, ISBN 0609609076), it's not in any way threatening, at least not to those with an appetite for the full range of human passions."True, men consort openly in the grass maze enroute to Herring Cove beach (a pastime which strikes him as innocently bacchanalian, more creaturely than lewd," and circumnavigatable in any event), and you cannot walk more than 100 yards down crowded Commercial Street without being flyered" by an eight-foot tall counting the bouffant transvestite advertising a revue. The author describes one such encounter, in which a towering drag queen amused a 4-year-old by repeatedly doffing, on command, his blue beehive wig to reveal the crewcut beneath: The child fell into paroxysms of laughter," he writes.
Cunningham, whose novel The Hours won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999, first came to town two decades ago as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, a cross-disciplinary incubator founded in 1968 by local luminaries such as Robert Motherwell and Stanley Kunitz. He admits his off-season sojourn was a total bust. Yet somehow, mired in a slough of despond and thwarted ambition, he fell in love with Provincetown, the way you might meet someone you consider strange, irritating, potentially dangerous but whom, eventually, you find yourself marrying."A summerer ever since, he understands the intricate weave of Provincetown's social fabric far better than Peter Manso, whose gossipy potboiler Ptown, released in July, earned Land's End some well-deserved collateral pre-publicity. Cunningham grasps the rhythms of the place and, like the many local poets he quotes (Kunitz, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, Alan Dugan, Mary Oliver), has a gift for touching on the timeless. He describes a certain segment of August, for instance, as a deep blue bowl of perfect days, noisier than winter but possessed of a similar underlying silence: A similar sense that the world is, and will always be, just this way calm and warm, bleached with brightness, its contrasts subdued by a shimmer that makes it difficult to determine precisely where the ocean ends and the sky begins." His often-rambling walk" is essentially a love sonnet whose sentiments are easily shared. Sandy MacDonald, the author of Quick Escapes Boston (Globe Pequot), lives in Cambridge and Nantucket in Massachusetts.