Rick Bass reads from The Traveling Feast at Fact & Fiction Tue., July 10, at 7 PM.
The Traveling Feast: On the Road and at the Table with America’s Finest Writers is filled with amazing Easter eggs for book nerds: like the fact that short story goddess Amy Hempel thinks that some of the best writing of her life was for a Manhattan animal shelter, where she would write last-minute appeals for dogs about to be euthanized (until the shelter fired her for bringing in bad publicity). Or that Paris Review co-found Peter Matthiessen had an enormous whale skull propped up on his front porch like a sculpture. Or that 61-year-old Lorrie Moore (a different-but-equal short story goddess) can out-party every other author who appears in the book.
It’s these details and anecdotes that make Rick Bass’ new non-fiction project so delightful and readable. In many ways, the reader is living through Bass chapter after chapter, as he visits each of his literary heroes one after the other and cooks them a meal in their kitchen. It’s what bibliophiles want most from their favorite authors: to be welcomed into those mysterious homes, to see their mentors’ desks, to break bread with them.
Bass is on several missions during the book. First and foremost, it’s to have his mentors meet his mentees — he brings his pet students and sometimes his daughter, Lowery, on each of his visits with authors — and to bridge the gap between literary generations. Secondly, it’s to say goodbye, as many of his mentors are aging, and a significant number are dying (by the time of the book’s publication, three are dead: Matthiessen, Denis Johnson, and John Berger). Finally, though, it’s about looking for recurring patterns among great writers, for finding out “the excellence of not just the craft of writing, but the craft of living.”
We are quickly whisked away on one trip after another, mostly to remote cabins (is being mostly a hermit a secret to being a great writer? It kind of seems so) where we are welcomed — sometimes warmly, sometimes less so — into authors’ lives. I found myself hanging on every word of some of my favorites included in the book (besides Hempel, Moore and Johnson, some of the standouts in the book include David Sedaris and Joyce Carol Oates), and picking apart every detail they shared about their writing life.
It’s not a perfect volume, though. It suffers, as some of Bass’ writing does, from too much space spent in the wrong places — for example, we spend more time getting to Lorrie Moore’s house than we do with Lorrie Moore, while too much time is wasted at the baggage claim in Geneva when what we really care about is John Berger living his last years in a remote mountain village. Some of Bass’ best sentences, as always, are when he pauses to describe a tiny moment, like car tires driving over pine needles on the way to Gary Snyder’s house, but other moments last a bit too long.
There’s also a lack of women and people of color in the pages. Many of the chapters only narrowly avoid straight white man worship, which makes some sense considering that’s mostly what makes up the old guard of writers. Bass seems pretty conscious of this, and adds diversity with a few younger female and queer selections. Still, the book indulges in some antiquated tropes and nostalgia for what has come to be understood as toxic masculinity. In Gary Snyder’s chapter, for example, Bass writes that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is “a boys’ book, and more dated yet, a boys’ book in the 1950s,” yet tries to reminisce with Snyder about the time period and lifestyle of that group, though Snyder himself has obviously moved on and seems much more interested in other topics. The women’s chapters feel more glossed over — not enough about their body of work and legacy are covered as the other sections. Hempel is seen too much as the ex-wife of Gordon Lish, while the road trip to Moore’s house gets more attention than her revolutionary work or the fact that she can happily drink wine and tell yarns until four in the morning.
Still, Bass is so open-hearted, so eager to connect with his subjects, that these flaws don’t take away from the book. He writes candidly of his fresh divorce, his struggle with aging and, of course, his own worries about achieving greatness — both as a writer and a teacher. Even if he doesn’t pull off his traveling feast perfectly (from his selection of writers to a literal exploding turkey at Tom McGuane’s house), the journey — and the wonderful book-nerd Easter eggs — make it worth the read.