Picture of a pilgrim along the Camino de Santiago in Spain

In his new memoir, The Longest Way Home, Andrew McCarthy describes several life-changing trips, including a pilgrimage along Spain's Camino de Santiago.

Photograph by Gregor Lengler, laif/Redux

By Don George

Book of the Month: The Longest Way Home, by Andrew McCarthy

Andrew McCarthy’s brave and moving new memoir, The Longest Way Home, begins with a traditional pilgrimage: the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. That’s where, after an episode of shaking-his-fists-at-the-heavens despair, the actor-turned-travel-writer suddenly feels lighter—and realizes that he has finally lost the fear that had been his center of gravity. Thereafter, he writes, “every step took me deeper into the landscape of my own being. I was in sync with the universe.” From this point on, travel becomes a kind of personal pilgrimage for McCarthy, a way to walk through his fear and fill up the shell of his self-confidence, “to grow up.”

This debut book recounts the latest extended manifestation of that pilgrimage, a multi-country quest—from New York and Baltimore to Vienna and Dublin, Patagonia, Peru, Costa Rica, and Tanzania—to find the courage to complete a life-changing commitment he has made: to marry his girlfriend of seven years.

McCarthy’s keen sense of scene and storytelling—honed in his early years acting in such iconic films as Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire—ignites his accounts. On the Amazon, he accepts chicken and rice wrapped in a banana leaf from a beautiful woman sitting before a small charcoal fire in a dugout canoe; when her fingers lightly brush his, the air is electric. In Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula, a guide leads him along a pitch-black rain forest trail, the night humid and close, past frogs and spiders and columns of cutter ants; suddenly the guide turns off his headlamp, and McCarthy is absolutely adrift, unable to see six inches in front of his eyes, until he looks to a break in the canopy overhead, where a single star shines.

The book is rich with arresting moments like these, when the universe telescopes into a precisely rendered scene, culminating in a particularly poignant passage when his ragtag group approaches the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro—and pieces of his life-puzzle click into place.

Threaded with an exemplary vulnerability and propelled by a candid exploration of his own life’s frailties, McCarthy’s memoir manifests two resonant lessons: that travel is always as much an inner as an outer odyssey, and that the most transforming destinations we discover are often the ones inside ourselves.

New Book Roundups:

Urban Intricacies

NW, the latest from British novelist Zadie Smith, portrays four characters originally from the same gritty housing estate in northwest London who have gone on to achieve varying degrees of success; using an array of narrative techniques, Smith captures the multilayered, multiracial life of a complex city. Race and class also appear as one of the many themes (which also include jazz, midwifery, kung fu, and 1970s blaxploitation films) in Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue, about the intertwined lives of two families in Oakland, California.

Personal Journeys

In A Room with a Pew, Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt sleep their way through seven of Spain’s ancient monasteries, from Barcelona in the north to Málaga on the southern Mediterranean coast, gaining insight into the inner workings of contemporary monastic life. Rick Antonson retraces a quintessentially American highway in Route 66 Still Kicks, the story of his 2,400-mile road trip through eight states searching for the old Route 66, unearthing obscure stories and interviewing larger-than-life characters along the way. In the memoir-with-recipes My Berlin Kitchen, Luisa Weiss shucks off an engagement and publishing job in New York to move back to her childhood hometown of Berlin. Both to heal and to learn about her new-old home, she cooks her way through a collection of mostly German dishes that include Erbsensuppe (German pea soup) and Spargelsalat (white asparagus salad).

Stark Landscapes

The stories of two families—one in the 1880s and the other in the 1930s—struggling to thrive on a windswept island off the coast of Southern California parallel each other in the historical fiction San Miguel by T.C. Boyle. In his novel The Forgiven, Lawrence Osborne vividly evokes the texture of wild desert towns of the Sahara, tracing the repercussions of a fatal car accident on the lives of the Moroccan Muslim staff and the Western visitors at a luxurious desert villa.

One Last Thing:

Changing Lives

I have never been a Peace Corps volunteer, but I believe that much like the Princeton-in-Asia organization that sent me to Japan for two years, the Peace Corps builds vital bridges between the U.S. and countries around the globe, fostering gritty on-the-ground learning and instilling both humility and hope. This belief is eloquently reaffirmed in Rajeev Goyal’s new book, The Springs of Namje. Volunteering in eastern Nepal from 2001, Goyal was responsible for a village-transforming water-redirection project that Peter Hessler describes in his foreword as “one of the greatest successes ever achieved by a Peace Corps volunteer.” Since returning to the U.S., Goyal has redirected his own energies and ideals to become the national coordinator of the Push for Peace Corps campaign. His engaging account of his failures and successes in both countries is an edifying and inspiring triumph.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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