Reviewed by Donna Seaman
Will the real Peter Ferry please stand up? Peter Ferry No. 1 lives in Evanston. He has been a textbook author, a travel writer, and a creative-writing teacher at Lake Forest High School. He has now written his first novel, Travel Writing, with a protagonist named Peter Ferry, a former textbook author who teaches creative writing at Lake Forest High School, and does a little travel writing on the side.
Are you rolling your eyes? Are you thinking, "No, not the dreaded author-as-character routine! Not metafiction. Fiction about fiction is so pretentious and annoying."
Well, not so fast, Dear Reader. On some level, all the novels we cherish are about storytelling. How can it be otherwise? We tell ourselves the story of our lives day in and day out. We use narrative to order random experiences and memories, and interpret emotions in terms of plot and character, foreshadowing and flashbacks. Stories make sense of life and forge connections.
But aside from all that, Travel Writing is an absolute pleasure to read. It is ensnaring, funny, suspenseful, smart and poignant. It is also subtly instructive because Peter Ferry No. 1 can't help but teach. It's his nature. And thanks to years of holding the attention of teenagers, he knows how to conceal invaluable lessons in the art of storytelling within a murder mystery wrapped around an exquisitely sensitive novel about the conundrums of love.
The curtain rises on Peter Ferry's classroom as he launches into a captivating tale. He was driving on Sheridan Road one winter night, he says, when he came upon a car swerving and weaving. The driver is beautiful and, to his eyes, exotic, and she appears to be very drunk or high. Alarmed, he wonders how he can intervene. What can he do to help? Then, just when his students are hooked, he switches gears and starts talking about "the power of the story." Never mind that; the students want to return to the action. And they want to know if it really happened. They want to know if it's true.
Peter and Lydia have been living together for years, but they have never fully committed to their coupledom. They have not spoken of love. Now Peter feels detached, disaffected. He is sinking fast into a sea of grief. He failed to save the beautiful young woman in the smoke-filled car with the music cranked high. She missed the curve in the road near the Baha'i Temple, crashed and died. Right before Peter's horrified eyes.
An obsession is born. He learns her name, Lisa Kim. He attends her funeral, and when her sisters assume he's Lisa's boyfriend Peter, he accepts this new identity. He plays detective. He discovers that Lisa was an actor, that her former beau is an irascible bartender named Peter Carey.
Wait a minute. Isn't Peter Carey a Booker Prize-winning Australian writer with a penchant for stories involving concealed identities, fugitives, hoaxes and crimes? What is Peter Ferry No. 1 up to? Is he slipping us a reading list? Take note. He also name-drops Evanston writer Katherine Shonk, and brings the late Walter Tevis into the story as No. 2's hard-drinking writing teacher at Ohio University. The real Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, did teach at Ohio University and drink to excess. His fictionalized incarnation tells his earnest if clueless student, " 'You haven't much to say, but you say it very well.' " Talk about being damned by faint praise.
But Peter is a determined guy. A fanatic. In search of significance, he turns to travel writing, because "I became interested in what we do and where we go to give our lives meaning when we don't or can't find it at home." Unusually incisive, genre-transcending travel articles by Peter Ferry interrupt the story of Lisa Kim.
Each tale delves into complexities of friendship and love, and the endless quest to understand oneself. In Cuernavaca, Mexico, Peter and Lydia meet Charlie Duke, an expat who spins elaborate stories, creating a web of words to hold them close. A canoe trip in the pristine wilds of Ontario reminds Peter once again of how precarious life is. Alone in Bangkok, he tries to fathom the unions-of-convenience between older, less-than-attractive white men and lovely young Thai women. Who is using whom? Are genuine feelings involved? How well do people ever understand each other? And by the way, has our hero fallen in love with a dead woman?
The novel's flow is also diverted by the high-spirited classroom scenes, which feature an articulate girl whose hair color changes from green to purple to pink, and a "dog-faced" boy called Nick. They question everything their teacher says. It's testimony to No. 1's storytelling prowess that even after No. 2 becomes convinced that Lisa's death was not accidental and his dogged pursuit of the truth grows rash, audacious and downright scary, we still welcome these narrative shifts and their sly illumination of the intertwining of illusion and reality.
It's a beautiful paradox, the way fiction reveals the deepest levels of existence. The real Peter Ferry fits stories within stories like mirrors reflecting mirrors to expose our assumptions about fact and the imagination. When his protagonist declares, "I am a teacher and a storyteller in that order," he offers a clue to the mission underlying this immensely entertaining, keenly conceived and brilliantly realized puzzle of a novel. Ferry is offering us a covert refresher course in the revelatory power of story, the responsibility of writers and the unending hunger for truth.
Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist and host for the radio program "Open Books" on WLUW 88.7 FM.
Books mentioned in this post