As a twentysomething expat in Berlin, Gideon Lewis-Kraus grew tired of the indulgent, posturing lifestyle of his crowd’s aimless intellectuals and artists. He was writing dispatches on the Berlin art scene for American publications, making a meager living, but none of it made him content. Meanwhile, his estranged father, a former rabbi who came out late in life, became increasingly unreliable and argumentative with his sons. Burning with dissatisfaction, Lewis-Kraus set out on a pilgrimage, then another and another, recording them in his book A Sense Of Direction: Pilgrimage For The Restless And The Hopeful. Along the way, he tried to coax meaning out of his wandering in a way that would bring closure, or at least the satisfaction that comes with knowing there is no true closure for some burdens.
Lewis-Kraus walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela across the north of Spain (recently the subject of Emilio Estevez’s film The Way) with Tom Bissell, author of the excellent recent essay collection Magic Hours. He walked the 88-temple circuit around Shikoku, the least-populous Japanese island, shivering and alone. Finally, after much convincing, he took his financially successful younger brother and father to the tomb of a Jewish mystic in Ukraine, under the guise that it would bring them closer to reconciliation and finally answer the long-gestating questions about his father’s past inconsistencies.
At times, it’s frustrating to read about Lewis-Kraus’ continual reliance on modern technology and the ways he remained connected to the outside world. Though he burrows deep into his experiences along each historic pilgrimage, he never fully immerses himself in the journey—his perspective is that of a modern technologically enhanced citizen of the world in places unstuck in time. That distinctly modern analysis of pilgrimage gives A Sense Of Direction its most powerful insights, but at the expense of making Lewis-Kraus appear to be an overly judgmental, petulant whiner.
He’s also dragged down by a memoirist’s worst self-indulgent tendencies, complaining at length about difficult lodging, and returning again and again to the story of his parents’ marriage, his father’s blurred and conflicting stories of coming out, and the immediate aftermath of divorce. These detailed reexaminations might feel natural during an extended walk through rural Spain or Japan, but not on the page.
He also seems to be oblivious to the fact that a privileged few get the chance to work as writers abroad in such a competitive, overcrowded field as creative non-fiction writing. Direction isn’t a travel book, nor is it strictly the story of a fractured family still coping with lingering suffering. It’s a complicated meditation on what the physical act of pilgrimage can mean in modern society, and in juggling the achingly personal with universal revelations, Lewis-Kraus comes admirably close to striking the right balance. While the day-to-day stories of his journeys around the world have moments of brilliant philosophical insight, A Sense Of Direction is caught between genres instead of forming a new mix of both.