Why do those of us who love to travel love to travel? DePaul University professor of environmental science Liam Heneghan says it's partly because being somewhere new causes us to "pay rapt attention to the little things." Because this "heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place" didn't yet have a name, Heneghan gave it one in an essay for Aeon magazine: allokataplixis — from the Greek allo, meaning "other," and katapliktiko, meaning "wonder."
Those of us who read travel writing do so, I'd argue, for a similar reason: to experience that sense of other-wonder without leaving home. In "Farewell Transmission: Notes From Hidden Spaces," Minneapolis writer Will McGrath delivers on the amazement and fascination to be found in the details of unfamiliar places, especially when those details are observed through the eyes of a viewer who is as capable of feeling astonishment at the most mundane people and occurrences as he is at the momentous ones.
Divided into four sections — "Overture," "Invisibilities," "Excavations" and "Coda" — this collection of 16 peripatetic essays comes alive with curiosity and compassion as its author rambles from Canada to Spain, Michigan to Namibia, Yemen to the Bronx and more, examining everything from active-shooter drills, to racially charged monuments, to stolen iPhones that mysteriously resurface halfway around the globe.
One of the early pieces, "The Kings of Simcoe County," finds McGrath traversing Ontario in search of Elvis — or rather, in search of those who pretend to be him at "the world's largest Elvis fest, a multiday celebration involving parades of classic cars, carnival rides, Elvis flicks under the stars, hundreds of live performances, and a battle royal to determine the greatest Elvis impersonator on the planet."
By the end, McGrath has revealed as much about the members of the crowd — "middle school teachers and salesmen, grandmothers and lawyers, music junkies and bro-bonding divorcées" — as he has about the King himself.
McGrath's debut book about Lesotho, the small landlocked kingdom surrounded by South Africa, "Everything Lost Is Found Again," won the Society of Midland Authors Award for Biography and Memoir, and his talents for examining the minutiae of nonhabitual environments and the effect they can have on the people who visit them are on display once again in this latest offering.
In "Hallucination (Donut Shop)," set in Maine, he becomes dazed with admiration for the cashier's coiffure, writing, "Her hair! — this beyond all else I need to convey: bangs piled into clouds, her hair was a buoyant holdover from the early nineties, hair that predated the tech bubble, hair that preceded Enron, hair that had never looted anyone's pension."
And in "Ballad of the Curtain Jerker," he goes on his own Clifford Geertz-ian "ethnographic journey, probing into what professional wrestling is and what it means, attempting to decipher the story it tells us about ourselves."
By the end of the book, McGrath has shown that, as his epigraph by Paul Éluard says, "There is another world, but it is in this one."
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey." Her poetry collection "Where Are the Snows," winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press this fall.
Farewell Transmission: Notes From Hidden Spaces
By: Will McGrath.
Publisher: Dzanc Books, 216 pages, $16.95
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