cover image In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey

In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey

James D. Houston. Mercury House, $14.95 (240pp) ISBN 978-1-56279-100-1

Houston has all the luck, piggy-backing a trip to Japan on his wife's research project; visiting his daughter when she gets a job on Saipan, one of the Mariana islands; traipsing from Hawaii, around Indonesia through Bali. The image of him that emerges from this travelogues is that of a man who has spent much of his life on the West Coast musing about what lies beyond the ocean. Musing, but not studying. Houston (Continental Drift) takes a very impressionistic, once-over-lightly approach to the exotic locales he visits. There is a little description (especially of baths, which he seems to like most of all) and reporting on the occasional quaintly weird custom like talking to rocks in Hawaii, and blessing metal objects in Bali. In theory, the book is defined by the metaphor of tectonic instability, but in fact it seems strained, adding little by way of cohesion or illumination. Houston favors lists of meaningfully juxtaposed nouns or runs of unanswerable questions (""What do such places speak to? In their silence what do we hear? Why is primal landscape so compelling?... The rocks are us.""), but a little goes a very long way and soon it seems more portentous than profound. There are also some vexing stereotypes, whether the resigned savant (""his eyes gaze into mine, merry, ancient, boyish, dark and innocent, the vulnerable sage."") or the cliche of the Japanese R-L switch (""Mona Risa, Mona Risa, men have name you. You so rike a raydee wis a mystic smire..."" ). One can't help feeling that while Houston had a grand opportunity and probably enjoyed it too, he didn't bring enough of it back for us. (May)