BOOKS DECEMBER 20, 2011
by John Casey
Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95
A FEW YEARS AGO, when John Casey turned seventy, he marked his birthday by logging that number in self-powered kilometers. Setting out on a pasted-together ramble through neighborhoods near his home in Virginia, Casey’s journey consisted of cycling, rowing on an erg machine, ice-skating, rollerblading, and a final lap around the block walking his dog. Back at home, he sat in his dinning room with a calculator and found that he had cleared the figure with about five kilometers to spare.
In the annals of real-life adventure stories, this feat may not rate particularly highly: Casey’s travels didn’t take him far afield, and he wagered neither life nor loot. A reader might simply note the achievement as comforting evidence that an older man can remain fit and able. Yet this idiosyncratic minor expedition distills the immense charm of Room for Improvement, a slim volume of essays about “a dozen lifelong sports”—among them stories about running a marathon, cross-country skiing in Vermont, canoeing among big industrial ships in Philadelphia Harbor—which is dedicated to the rather humble but, it turns out, welcome and necessary goal of giving outdoor recreation a good name.
The shadow of Thoreau casts itself over many Americans who write about the natural world, and although Casey works here on a vastly different scale, the values of simple living and hard-earned liberty extend to these pages. In his introduction, Casey points to a different version of Thoreau, noting that in addition to having a fierce meditative streak, he was a great wanderer—sometimes as a gentle “sojourner in nature,” but other times covering considerable distances on Cape Cod or hiking Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Insights into nature do not always require stillness. There is value in “pushing hard enough to see and feel the earth’s surface differently.” Thoreau was no boorish weekend-warrior, of course; and Casey has never been interested in diving off cliffs or much else about the extreme-sports movement. “He wasn’t looking for near-death trips and neither am I,” he writes.
The centerpiece of this collection—and its most adventuresome tale—concerns joining a twenty-six-day Outward Bound expedition near Hurricane Island in Maine, a beautiful but unforgiving place even in summer, cursed, unaccountably, as Casey writes, with “cold and bugs together.” The program is known for its challenging “solos,” normally conducted over several days, when a person is left mostly to his own devices alone on an uninhabited island. But Casey’s best observations do not spring from that solitude. They are the fruit of living among the other students, travelling here and there in a “thirty-foot open boat” under oars, often in rough seas.
Perhaps owing to Thoreau, or maybe because of some dark absence in the woods and valleys of the world, writers about nature can seem allergic to the company of fellow men, and become scolds. Casey reveals himself to possess a kind of prickliness among his fellow Outward Bounders, as they flail about at first with poor rowing technique and general ineptitude. (Later in the book, as part of a winter Outward Board program, he remembers to keep his “trap shut.”) Yet those sharp elbows never appear in his writing. Casey does not chide his contemporary reader for being couch bound, slothful, or indifferent to nature. When he does bend to instruct, he does it gently: “I wonder for a minute if some of my pleasure is sharpened because I’m afraid that these woods and fields, which should outlast me, will not.” Mostly the natural world is just worth looking at; it inspires deep thought and is invigorating, but it does not need to be romanticized, and its inhabitants should not be invested with human thoughts. Casey cites Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”
Casey notes that Kurt Vonnegut once told him that “to flatter a person, it’s more effective to praise their minor secret vanities than their major accomplishments. (Kurt was very proud of his swimming.)” This is a book about Casey’s own minor vanities rather than his major accomplishments, which include the novel Spartina, which won the National Book Award in 1989, and its sequel, Compass Rose, published last year. Both of these fine books are set in the salt-water marshes of southern Rhode Island, and concern life along that rugged coast: building boats, catching fish, scraping for cash. Here, as in those novels, he captures the beauty of a boat in the water:
I love the flare and curve from bow to waist, the curve and tuck from waist to stern. On calm water I like to hear the rustling of the wake, the sound of the oar blades chinking in. In swells I love the way she lifts and settles, fitting herself to the water.
But despite some common themes with his fiction, this is not a writer’s memoir. At one point Casey takes a narrow rowing shell out for a first spin on a dammed section of the Rivanna River in Virginia. He tips the boat over and goes spilling into to the water. It is, Casey tells us, especially difficult to get back into a shell once you’ve been bucked, and as he struggles to flop in over the side, another rower glides past and says, “That’s one.” “One what?” Casey asks. The first of three times that he will flip a shell, the man says—but after the third, he will have the form and balance down. As in the many instances of minor failure or setback that Casey records in his book, here would seem a perfect time to draw a connection between sport and writing, to apply the same rule of three, say, to the life of the novelist. Yet Casey, to his credit and the collection’s betterment, resists the urge. Perhaps he never even considered drawing the connection. He puts writing adjacent to sport just once, noting reasonably that a brisk five-mile run can help erase the static failure of a bad day at the desk.
Casey is also not much interested in appearing wise or giving advice. He writes with a light touch that spans several registers, such as when he dispenses with a low moment of despair in his biography with a quick phrase: “Lacrimae rerum—the tears of things, or a big boo-hoo about everything.” Most of his forays into nature involve some goofy element that will be familiar to anyone who risks making themselves absurd with sweaty exertion. The best image comes from Casey’s participation in the JFK Memorial Fifty-Mile Run in Maryland. Kennedy, Casey explains, “had once said that every U.S. Marine should be able to march fifty miles in one day.” Off he goes. It starts to rain, and his running partner drops out. Along the route, he grabs an umbrella and continues on under that rather dainty cover.
Such self-mocking, however, underplays Casey’s dedication to sport and his many abilities: he helped introduce the world of jogging to readers of Sports Illustrated in the 1960s (in an essay included in the book), back when only track stars and madmen ran for fun. He is an accomplished rower, a deft paddler, a capable skier, and a crack wood-splitter. These abilities may strike some as common, and too lightweight. But Room for Improvement sneaks up on the reader with a rather bold and persuasive argument: that amateur exercise can contain beauty and unique spiritual value; that our “minor vanities” matter. Casey writes about a recurring dream he has of the body in motion:
I began to run, easily but with an astonishingly powerful spring. Air came into my lungs not only through my mouth but directly through the skin of my chest. It was like slaking a deep thirst. I came to a hill. I feared that would be the end of the magic, but the new power just coiled up tighter. It made me laugh. I breasted the hill and kept on, absorbing the silver air and discharging energy downward through my calves and forward from my brow and eyes.
Thoreau would not have had much patience for joggers. His phrase “sojourners in nature” comes from a passage in Walden in which he laments man’s descent from the wild to the domestic: “We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.” He regrets our lesser station. Casey, meanwhile, seems perfectly happy with our current lot, free if we are willing, to do new things with our bodies, and occasionally, if we are dogged and fortunate, to do them with skill and grace.
Ian Crouch is a writer living in Boston.