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Book Review: Travel Writing by Peter Ferry

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The line between fact and fiction is clearly defined. Or is it?

In Travel Writing, author Peter Ferry weaves a complicated tale that may be speckled with elements of both. Of course, it’s a novel, so the whole thing is fiction. But our narrator’s name is the same as the author’s, implying at least some amount of autobiography. And there’s a story within the story, and that story may or not be true.

Confused? Don’t worry. It all begins to make sense as you go along. Or maybe it doesn’t, but you finally realize that may be the point: the fact/fiction line is blurry whenever there’s a story being told.

Travel Writing is laid out in two tenses: past and present. In the present, narrator Pete Ferry is a high school English teacher, trying to impart upon his students the importance of story-telling. His premise is that the power of a good story is independent of its literal truth.

To illustrate this, he tells a tale about a woman with whom he once briefly shared the road. This story, and the one that follows from it, takes place in the past.

The woman was obviously intoxicated, swerving all over the road. She may or may not have been naked (this he adds for the titillation of his adolescent students). The students listen with rapt attention, in spite of their teacher's repeated disclaimer that he’s making the whole thing up. They want to know what happened next, even though they know it isn’t true.

Then the narrator tells his readers he’s pulling pretty much the same business with them. “But it really did happen, of course, the girl in the car,” he writes, “or could have or might as well have happened.”

And just like the previously apathetic English students, the reader is interested, even though we know the story is made up. We knew that all along, because we picked up the book in the fiction section. But to have it presented like that, as a story whose value exists independently of its truth, really makes you think.

So what happens to the intoxicated driver? She runs off the road and dies, prompting an existential crisis for the narrator. He can’t help but wonder: could he have saved her? Should he have done something?

He becomes obsessed with finding out about the woman, whose name turns out to be Lisa Kim. His friends, who are patronizingly judgmental and unsupportive, tell him he’s gone off the deep end and needs to seek help. So he gets a therapist who helps him sort out the existential crisis, but he remains preoccupied with finding out about Lisa Kim. He wants to tell her story.

Meanwhile, his romantic relationship of convenience unravels, as his lover realizes she wants more and he realizes that he doesn’t. This is accompanied by an entertaining back-story of their early days, when they lived in Mexico and met a man named Charlie who already valued a good story over a true one.

By the end of it all, you’re left wondering what was true and what wasn’t. Which of the characters from the narrator’s life are made up? Which ones are real? What really happened?

And then you remember: it’s all made up. Probably. But that doesn’t make it any less of a great story.

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