IN KURT CASWELL’S debut book, An Inside Passage, you will find: a “weird love triangle,” a beautiful dead girl, a hawk that appears like a vision, a wounded boy, and a variety of landscapes from around the world so accurately penned you cannot help but feel you were actually there. His writing brings every sense to bear, and days later you will still have an exotic smell lingering in your nostrils.
At its essence, this book is a memoir. The story, which won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, is about the author’s personal journey and his relationship with the world and people around him. He admits that nothing amazing happens, “just this and that.” But the situations in themselves are incredible, made even more so by Caswell’s clean and evocative language: 108 hours fasting in Death Valley, a wedding in Delhi, fighting with his spouse in the Philippines. He reminds us of our own personally sensational moments, and how to keep finding them in the strangest places.
Searching for his own indigenous claim on a place, Caswell finds himself everywhere, which makes it hard for him to decide exactly where to plant his feet. The point is, he never does. He divorces his wife in Colorado, heads into the cloudy mountains of northern Japan, returns to his birthplace in Alaska. Frequently he quotes Bruce Chatwin on the virtues of homelessness. To Caswell, homelessness seems a form of being home.
Don’t look for a lot of direction here. Caswell is a sometimes plotless wanderer, but that ends up giving the book its frank and satisfying tenor. His prose has the feel of haiku, like reading something by a seventeenth century Chinese poet. He is a traveler with a stick over his shoulder, his days full of fine observations, sharp turns in meaning and environment. He can be hilarious. At one point he is dispatched into the wilderness to retrieve a young hiker who, in an ad hoc ceremony with other boys, injured himself by piercing his own penis. He writes, “You see, he had injured himself in a private way. To be more clear, he had injured his private self, in a private way. . . .”
Caswell’s honesty and vulnerability might seem embarrassing at times, but he is of course choosing what to show. You’ve not accidentally stumbled on him alone in the desert. He wants you to see him. He wants you to know exactly what it feels like. At this, he succeeds, a plum of a storyteller. You put on his skin and travel to places you will probably never go to, experiencing moments both remarkable and mundane that will never happen again. When you are done, you will feel like you have made a crossing.