Perhaps the most useful thing to say at the beginning is that this book is not to be confused with the novel of the same title written in 1980 by Lionel Mitchell, which is described as a spiritual odyssey of a young black man in New York’s East Village. This collection of travel pieces may also be in some ways a spiritual odyssey for the author, but for the reader that is not the most important or enjoyable element of the book. This is Bill Barich’s second book (after Laughing in the Hills, 1980); with the exception of one essay, all the contents first appeared in The New Yorker between 1981 and 1984. Portions of Barich’s first book were also first published in The New Yorker.
The volume contains ten essays, divided into three parts: Part 1 is mainly about fishing and horse-racing on the East and West Coasts, while part 2 deals with London and Florence, also emphasizing horse racing; part 3 is a single essay, again about fishing on the West Coast. The individual essays range from eleven to thirty-six pages in length, and all but three treat horse racing or fishing in some form. The horse-racing pieces continue the theme of Barich’s first book, which dealt exclusively with the author’s experiences at various California racetracks. The pieces in Traveling Light are arranged chronologically, but the author tells the reader that there is really no need to read them that way.
The book is ostensibly travel literature and in most libraries will be found in the travel section, but the real antecedents and parallels for the work are rather to be found in the tradition of the informal essay. Barich’s true niche is not to be found with Ring Lardner or even Izaak Walton, but with Charles Lamb or E. V. Lucas or Max Beerbohm. The individual pieces are true essays, displaying the best qualities of that genre, and it is in virtue of this that they may well be read as independent works. Traveling Light would in truth make a good bedside book.
Additionally, the book has very little to say on the actual subject of travel; travel, by itself, is, in fact, never discussed. What the essays do discuss are places and people. With an eye for significant detail, Barich makes a California trout stream, a London pub, and an Italian racecourse come alive. He does not so much visit these places as live there or become a regular. He enters into the life afforded instead of observing from the outside in the usual manner of the tourist. In fact, tourist is the furthest thing from what Barich becomes.
People, too, are central to the work, and the emphasis is always on people in their natural habitat—whether it be pub or racetrack or trout stream. Barich is attracted to secure, relatively unsophisticated people, to competent people who know what they are about and operate with a minimum of fuss. Examples from the book would be his fishing companion in California, Paul Deeds; Dorothy Wharton-Wheeler, whom he meets at a racecourse in England; or O’Neill, the proprietor of a tackle shop on Long Island. These are only a selection; there are many others, some the subject of lengthy, developing descriptions, some neatly realized in a page or a paragraph.
Along the way, Barich offers a great many other pleasant and delightful things; again, in this, he models himself on the essay tradition, creating the relaxed, conversational tone so important in that form. In the midst of an account of fishing in California, there are brief bits on the history of early Russian involvement in California, the distinctions between kinds of trout, and Zane Grey. The essay “J. D. Ross’s Vision” not only tells the reader much of attempts to dam rivers in Washington for power but along the way presents neat bits of Seattle politics. A visit to Saratoga Springs for the annual yearling sale also provides readers with the history of that spa and racecourse and some insights into tax shelters and investment. These are only a few of the random bits that are likely to spring unannounced from the pages. Barich does not introduce these topics in order to show off but brings them in naturally as they might turn up in good conversation. He has the knack of being interesting on a subject, however recondite (such as Florentine painting), even if the reader initially knows or cares little about the topic.
It is clear that Barich not only likes to talk to people but also has the ability to put...
(The entire section is 1821 words.)