Joe McGinniss

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Paul Theroux

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Mr. McGinniss was urged by friends, his curiosity and an issue of The National Geographic to spend a year in Alaska. He was told it was a "raw and wild and stimulating land…. It would … change, in some way, anyone who ventured there." But [in "Going to Extremes"] he reports more rawness than stimulation. After reading this book I feel a sledge of wild huskies couldn't drag me there. "Going to Extremes" is a serviceable title, but "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" would have described the book exactly. The bear was a grizzly sow with three cubs, and had Mr. McGinniss contemplating the topmost branches of a tree.

Mr. McGinniss does not moralize or travel with a theme in mind. Like John McPhee whose route was similar in his Alaska book, "Coming Into the Country," he takes the rough with the smooth. But he lacks Mr. McPhee's intensity and metaphysics, and he has little of Mr. McPhee's high style. Mr. McGinniss's version of a travel book is a plotless chronicle of comings and goings, picaresque reportage: he is Studs Terkel on snowshoes. What another person might find frightful, he considers judiciously, and then moves on. He sees some grounds for hope in a group of hippy-revisionists-turned-disco-jockeys playing Grateful Dead records to the unpeopled tundra. And yet it seems to me that it will take more than the Grateful Dead to soothe the savage Alaskan breast that Mr. McGinniss lays bare in his account of a year trudging around the state. (pp. 1, 34)

"Alaskans" may be a misnomer. One of Mr. McGinniss's problems is in trying and failing to differentiate among the peoples he meets. "A native girl carrying a baby boarded the train," he writes: this is hardly a revealing sentence. In other places he refers to Indians and Eskimos, but it is impossible to tell one from another. I am not asking for clear racial distinctions, but only for a bit of cultural paraphernalia that might help me understand why they go to extremes. Apart from them are the "whites." This might be Alaskan terminology that Mr. McGinniss is adopting, but again it is unhelpful, and there might be blacks there who will take exception to it. This, in a sense, is a dilemma all Americans share: don't make distinctions. We always assume that differentiation means contempt. It has resulted in a lack of subtlety and a rather gimcrack prose style.

Mr. McGinness often writes clearly and well, but just as often he fills a paragraph with sentence fragments…. This is obviously not carelessness, but design, but it makes for some rather scruffy prose.

Perhaps that style suits his subjects, the monosyllabic airline pilots and backwoodsmen and the industrial developments, every one of which seems like a blot on the landscape. But it does not serve his intelligence, because for the most part Mr. McGinniss is unflappable and thorough; he takes risks, is patient with the crustiest mountebank, and is about as intrepid as anyone could wish….

But Mr. McGinniss went to extremes, and after an excess of urban Alaskan blight he and some others trekked toward Cocked-hat mountain in the Brooks Range in the north-central part of the state. This last section of the book is pretty and unpeopled…. (p. 34)

"Go, and look behind the ranges," Kipling wrote in his poem "The Explorer." Mr. McGinniss heeds the advice and gives a graceful ending to a book that is otherwise largely his observation of misdirected energy and of a society that seems to be disintegrating before it has had a chance to form. Mr. McGinniss did not set out to judge or explain, but only to find out what Alaska is. He has succeeded, for nearly everything he says is news. (p. 35)

Paul Theroux, in a review of "Going to Extremes," in The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1980, pp. 1, 34-5.

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