I have a few certainties in life: Everyone likes The Beatles and everyone has a friend who pretends they’re just OK. The NBA was rigged from the very late 1990s to the early 2000s. Jordan left basketball because of gambling. Michael Jackson was innocent. Bush didn’t knock down the Towers. Our cable news will never be trusted again. And lastly, every upper-middle class American has a friend who went abroad and started a Tumblr, most likely named ‘the good life’ in that country’s vernacular. The blog refers to visiting monuments and tourist sites as ‘life-changing’ and ‘experiencing a new culture’. It may even have the gumption to decry others for not doing the same with their lives, usually in a thinly veiled manner – e.g. dotting the words ‘priviledge’ and ‘opportunity’ throughout the posts to temper the uncultured label.
This certainty caused some reticence when Adam Shepard, author of Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, e-mailed me about possibly writing a review prior to the release of his new book, One Year Lived. The synopsis was not unlike many of the Tumblrs that called my Facebook News Feed home: an American travels around for a year in search of culture, in search of meaning, and in search of experiences that the homeland can’t offer. “Will I have to read about the breathtaking marvel that is the Sistine Chapel for the twelfth time?” I wondered, having fallen victim to that exposition myself in Rome. “Will the revelations of a white-collared yuppie who has his dad’s Amex fill page after page?”
And then Adam sent me a chapter about bullfighting. Perfect, I thought. I loved Death in the Afternoon. Perhaps he will provide an interesting account of the rich Spanish tradition from the sombra seats.
That he would actually enter a bullfight in an impoverished South American country sent my certainty into the wind. Like any reader who stumbles into a ‘wait, what?’ moment, I requested the rest of the book.
What you need to know about this book is that it’s written within the realm of possibility for your life, and that’s the point. This isn’t The Sun Also Rises with torrid longings and dynamic characters who almost overshadow the book itself, although I fell in love with Ivanka, the Slovakian love interest in this book who’s the polar opposite of the insufferable Bret. It isn’t Tucker Max Goes Abroad with drunken nights that creatively feature dildos. Nor is it a book with an obsessive eye for hospitality and dining, like one from the Rick Steves series. The fascination of this book lies within the feasibility of the adventure. In the same vein of his first book, which was a challenge to see how far he could climb up America’s economic ladder with only appetizer money at The Cheesecake Factory, One Year Lived rang true because the experiences were limited to the extent of one’s comfort zone, not financial status.
The other things you must know about this book are that it is digressive and that the digressions return in the most unexpected ways. It takes a certain type of honesty and self-denigration to realize how the most obscure failures, like his relationship with his basketball coach, will come full-circle when put to the test in a foreign land. He is cognizant of his appearance in the eyes of women and his shortcomings as a would-be globetrotting Casanova; his narrative plays neither the hero nor the antihero. It is Adam, for better or hilarious worse.
I do not typify myself as the cynical reader, but if one were to call me that, I wouldn’t raise hell. Ever in the pursuit of objectivity, I thought I’d catch this book falling into the trappings of the Tumblr. For instance, the book began with a list of the things Adam wanted to see and do. Show me the reblog button, I thought. But the book escaped the checklist from the moment he stepped off the plane; it had to, because submitting to the chaos of another world is what human beings must do. Knights accomplish quests. In fact, Adam’s humanitarian yearnings had become so idealized that they proved as tough to break into as, say, a sales or marketing job. The separation between expectation and reality pushed this story along beautifully – think 500 Days of Summer, but with latrines and boundless chickens – both in his love life and his attempt to be a citizen of the world.
Away, away from the third world went Adam, and I predicted the story would become an embellished Dickensian account of New Zealand’s sweeping landscape. Instead, the book returned to impressive self-reflection about the pros and heavy cons of paradisical living following an extended stint in destitution. This was where the separate histories of the Aborigines of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand erased connotations of anything with a backslash from my mind. He was there to learn, even at the exposure of his own weaknesses as a man, when he did all he could on an Australian farm. (Read: not much.) By the time he got to Europe and inevitably implored Americans to travel more, citing the deflating statistics about U.S. foreign culture habits, it felt earned in a distinctly non-entitled way – and I have a sharp entitlement detector, after growing up right outside entry number one. He had done it on the cheap and done it in a fashion that demanded far more than a blog.
If you would like a free copy of the book, it is available below in PDF form. Adam only requests that you leave a comment saying where you would like to travel, if you could go anywhere. With an increased discourse and active engagement with other cultures, maybe America won’t be the country derided for its isolationism in tram queues and airport terminals.