By Peter Ferry
Harcourt. 294 pp. $24
Three things happen in Peter Ferry's carefully wrought first novel: First, a high-school English teacher witnesses the death of a beautiful young woman and develops an obsession about it. Then he shares the story with his students. And, finally, he periodically ventures away from his Chicago neighborhood and writes travel pieces about Mexico, Thailand, Canada and Ireland.
"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," the man says. "It is the reason that people join the circus, I think, drink too much, drive too fast, jump off things, jump into things, climb things, run away from home, and paddle into the wilderness. It is also the reason they tell stories."
Ferry engineers this story so that each of its elements -- dead woman, curious students, travel episodes -- depends on the others. He also uses them to offer a modest, thoughtful lesson about the permeable boundary between illusion and reality, fiction and fact.
Does it work? Well, yes and no. The novel comes alive in the classroom and on the road, but it wilts during the teacher's investigation of the fatal accident. That's disappointing, since those events demand most of the reader's attention.
In a noir scenario that feels familiar from movies and television, the teacher is driving home from school during when he spies a car being driven erratically by a young woman on a busy road. Before he can do anything to stop her, the woman hits a lamppost and is killed. From this point on, the teacher becomes consumed with the notion that he could have prevented the accident, and then with the possibility that this wasn't an accident at all. What if someone -- a faithless lover, perhaps -- was trying to kill her? He delves into her history, piecing together clues from the contradictory testimonies of her friends and family.
As the teacher sinks deeper into this mystery, he begins to lose touch with his own life. His girlfriend accuses him of loving the dead girl more than he loves her. His other close friends worry about his behavior, particularly when he asks for a leave of absence and holes up in a makeshift command post where he covers the walls with lists and timelines.
The teacher's motivations for his obsessive enterprise -- his troubled conscience, his wish to transcend habitual passivity and his crush on the beautiful dead woman -- are not especially convincing, and there's a reason: The author doesn't want us to believe him. We're not supposed to believe anything about this story. Ferry undercuts the narrative at every opportunity, using episodes in the teacher's classroom and in foreign countries to show that truth is often merely a fiction and that fiction can be as necessary as truth. "Then you're saying illusion is more important than reality," says a student during English class. "What I'm saying," replies the teacher, "is that very often illusion is all we have."
It's hardly a new lesson, but Ferry, who was a high-school English teacher for 27 years until his retirement last year, delivers his ideas about the power of storytelling gracefully and unpretentiously. In fact, he's a little too persuasive. The schoolroom and travel sections are so thoroughly engrossing -- the students are wonderfully provocative, and a Canadian wilderness trip is described with crystalline eloquence -- that the murder mystery becomes even more tired and artificial than the author perhaps intended. In the throes of his fantasy, the teacher doesn't seem like a guy with an irresistible compulsion. He seems like a guy with not enough to do.
Even as it makes playful puzzles out of truth and illusion, meta-fiction has the same goal as conventional fiction: to make the reader care. Why else would we stick around for 300 pages? What draws us into Travel Writing is the author's pure love of teaching and his thirst for travel, which seem dazzlingly authentic. What leaves us unmoved is the book's main events, which the author has convinced us are beyond belief. ·
Donna Rifkind frequently reviews for Book World.