Joe McGinniss

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Mark Kramer

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Going to Extremes is fine reading. It is thick with whole people, exotic landscapes, the nervous and constant curiosity of an adventurer who knows that the essence of place is more likely found while chatting in barrooms than while viewing the wondrous works of man and nature. (pp. 290-91)

McGinnis has a sharp eye for the rough and beery self-servers, the opportunistic but misfit wanderers who have swelled Alaska's population since the discovery of oil. The vignettes that fill the first sixteen chapters form an exquisite cinéma vérité whose unmoderated but soon patent message tells of the destruction of nature and culture by exploitative invaders.

There's not a sentence of preaching in the book. Again and again, with an elegant journalistic jujitsu, McGinnis has his people do themselves in, announce their own poignance, crassness, lostness and, now and then, nobility…. [His vignettes are] strongest when dealing with bar friends, less boldly drawn when describing company officials, rural entrepreneurs, former academics who have made new lives in snowbound cabins along Arctic Circle traplines.

Only one thing is missing from McGinnis's journey, and that is McGinnis. There's hardly a glimpse of the man who met all those interesting people and went to all those alien and exciting places. He never talks about himself. With two interesting exceptions, he never hints at why he's chosen his subject, why he's footloose, how he reacts to the sequences he relates, the people he meets. He is conspicuously absent.

Such near invisibility must have been a useful posture for him to assume in the field, when discovering how things really are. It even suits exposition of some complex and orderable subjects whose telling aspects don't require the author to discuss how he banished ignorance and learned what's what.

But this is a travel book. It is a wanderer's chronicle—a lovely and well-worn genre, and a difficult one. And one of its well-settled conventions seems to require the author's tasteful self-revelation, his offering of personal evidence (if the trip is to be thought worthwhile) that travel has indeed broadened him.

Which leads to the two moments of self-revelation. The first is a confession of pain felt atop a high mountain glacier onto which he has flown in a ski-plane. It's a triumphant backpacker's pain, pain evoked by "the inability to look in all directions at once." This is a striking passage, surprising because our unknown host tells what he feels, not what he sees—he is "consumed by immensity and splendor beyond anything I had ever imagined." He does so with a seemingly unconscious sweetness, for it is not done with particular artfulness, just an atypical blurt of astonishment.

The second moment occurs after days of hard hiking…. [He has climbed] through an almost intestinal canal of rock into a mile-long grassy meadow, tranquil in the midst of arctic desolation. McGinniss experiences a mystical fullness before "this astonishing display which had seemed to give each of us a deep and sudden private flash of insight into the process of the creation of the earth."… [The] experience is invoked, rather than described. He leaves one convinced of the preciousness of pristine wilderness, but frustrated with the host's elusiveness. (pp. 291-92)

Mark Kramer, "Elegant Jujitsu," in The Nation, Vol. 231, No. 9, September 27, 1980, pp. 290-92.

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