LAST ACTION HERO

When my boy was little, giving him a book was an easy thing: I'd get the book, sign it with love, wrap it up, and hand it to him on some appropriate occasion, and he'd be delighted. We'd sit on the couch and read it together.

Now that he's 15, it's a bit more complicated. He's far enough down the path of a teenager to insist on making his own choice and turn aside from anything a parent thinks is good for him.

Which just means I have to be a little more subtle. I can't hand him a book and say, "Here, I think you'd get a lot out of this." Instead I let him hear me praising the book to my wife or describing my pleasure in it, with no reference to him, and arrange to leave it lying out somewhere where he can pick it up when I'm not around and start into it on his own.

I pretend not to notice, unless he says something to me. I don't think I'm fooling him for a minute; I'm respecting his reality while keeping our communications open.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. I tried "Catcher in the Rye" that way, but I ended up selling it to Amy instead, and now she's reading it.

There are so many books that come to mind when I think of what might help a boy stretch his body and mind into an adult shape. And reading, which absorbed my rainy afternoons when I was his age, has so many competitors for a boy's time nowadays. No use lamenting that. That's just the way it is, even in a house like ours that doesn't have a TV connection.

I had some luck recently in hooking up Luke and an author I remembered loving at his age, who was obscure and forgotten even when I was a youth in the 1960s: Richard Halliburton. Not only is Halliburton beneath footnoting today, his whole genre -- "romance and adventure" -- has vanished from the bookshelves.

Which is a shame for 15-year-old boys. Because it was a perfect tonic to that restless yearning of youth, to break out of whatever valley you were born in and plunge into the world and see and taste it all.

Yet (though you may never admit this) you're not quite ready for the full plate of adult responsibilities, and the hard realities of sex and pain, unalterable dilemmas and irrecoverable loss. You're still in the apprentice stage of life, and you need a safe place to stretch your mind without being sucked full-force into the typhoon of adult experience.

Halliburton give it to you. His first book begins with his graduation from Princeton in 1920-something and his decision to tramp around the world with no money except what he can earn along the way. Not just circle the globe: He wants to see the most "romantic" spots and have an "adventure" wherever he goes: The Matterhorn, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Kashmir, Ankor Wat, Mout Fuji.

And he does, and he tells it all in a brisk, jaunty, self-effacing style. He's a grown-up boy, telling boy's stories on a global scale. Nowadays, probably, he'd have been diagnosed with "ADHD" at 13 and given a prescription that would have taken all the spunk out of him. That's how we are nowadays.

He was enormously popular in the '20s and '30s, and my homebody grandmother had his books on her shelves, which is where I first encountered them. I assumed his work was long out of print, but when I went looking for it recently online I found it there, in reissues. Apparently the copyrights had expired, but some niche publishers had issued photocopies.

Most of them are "Travel" publishers, and Halliburton's work is wretchedly ill-suited to that genre. You learn something about the places he goes, but you'd never get there the way he does, and you feel a spirit of adventure in his writing far more than an anthropological depth.

He is the personification of Edward Said's dirty word, "Orientalism." On a global scale. He goes to other lands to taste their most exotic qualities. He befriends the locals sometimes, sometimes he irritates them. He judges them (and the Europeans he meets along the way) by his -- and our -- ideas of right and wrong. At times a modern reader can catch a whiff of the Ugly American stereotype, but there's nothing dishonest about it.

Re-reading him now as an adult, I notice the missing quality that would be front and center if such a book were written today: sex. Certainly he has adventures that graze the subject: climbing in the attics of the Trocadero with a Parisienne cabaret singer, loafing on the Monte Carlo with a bored American debutante, swimming in Java with local girls. But as he writes it, this is simply more adventure and romance, as though flirting with pretty girls was all apiece with hunting tigers or climbing mountains.

He keeps sexuality at such a safe distance I almost can't tell whether his real lusts are disguised in the description of the close bonds of companionship he feels for the Greek sailors he ships across the Indian Ocean with, or the underaged Spanish girl he exchanges smiles with on a train. But it's me that's being creepy here, not him.

The sexlessness of it all is what makes it a great story for a young teen. It's not prudishness; you can fill in the blanks to suit yourself. Rather it's a place to experience something of an adult life in which the relentless piston-punching pressure of sexuality is not the dominant quality.

There's a reason Halliburton vanished from print. The "Catcher in the Rye" style inverts him entirely. You need that, too. You need both to achieve full maturity. But we've lost too much in collapsing the space between childhood and adulthood. The transition of adolescence needs open rooms to linger in. People mature at different paces.

Sometimes I think some of the RPGs I watch my son play have filled in that gap. The girl-characters wear tight, skimpy clothes, but the storylines are surprisingly high-toned and romantic. "Lord of the Rings," though not meant as an adolescent's story, does that, too, to a large degree.

The reprinted Halliburton books you now can buy online are a mixed lot. The better ones often omit his pictures, which is a wretched mistake because his camera is his only constant companion.

The modern introductions, where they exist, are a strange and embarassing effort to shoehorn him into the "Travel Writing" genre. One quotes from the original introduction to "The Royal Road to Romance." The original editor is writing a subtle and well-turned variation on the great passage from Tennyson's "Ulysses," which is the exact thing. I remember being stirred by it as a boy, repeating the lines in my head and feeling the welling in the heart. And the modern editor just as clearly has no clue about any of this and just thinks he's quoting an eccentric bit of dated prose.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vest the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
Whatever became of him? In Memphis, where he was born, they sometimes recall him from time to time.
Inevitably, Richard Halliburton changed as he grew older, and the change was reflected in his writing. His critics applauded it as the tardy but welcome onset of maturity; Richard saw it, at times, as the loss of his joie de vivre. He rightly perceived, late in his still young life, a more significant change — a change in the world around him. The appetite of the public for his special kind of fare was waning — his “unreasoned thrills” were becoming less and less “irresistible.” The twentieth century was approaching its forties; the world was no longer young.
His meteor course exactly filled the space between the World Wars. In March 1939 he attempted to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific to San Francisco, and hit a monster typhoon. The last message received from his wireless is said to have read:
SOUTHERLY GALES RAIN SQUALLS LEE RAIL UNDER WATER WET BUNKS HARDTACK BULLY BEEF HAVING WONDERFUL TIME WISH YOU WERE HERE INSTEAD OF ME

INDEX - AUTHOR


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© March 22, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"