By Barry Lopez. Knopf. 163 pp. $18 Barry Lopez's spare, didactic work of fiction purports to contain the farewell letters of nine people who have been targeted by the Office of Inland Security because they are resisting the national conviction that "to achieve wealth . . . is the desire of all peoples everywhere." "We reject the assertion, promoted today by success-mongering bull-terriers in business, in government, in religion, that humans are goal-seeking animals," writes Owen Daniels, the fictional organizer of this collection of testimonies. "It is balance and beauty we believe people want, not triumph." And so the members of this imaginary resistance movement are going away, disappearing into a timeless world that disdains modern notions of progress: "We will champion what is beautiful, and so finally make our opponents irrelevant."
But before vanishing into sweet nothingness, each of the nine leaves behind a testament that seeks to explain who they are. These essays flow with a predictable unpredictability: An Argentine sculptress recounts how her mother, dying of Parkinson's disease, finally reveals that she met her now-divorced husband at a concentration camp. A woodworker explains how he was raped at 5 and was unable to love until he assaulted someone in India. An American soldier who lost his sight and sexual organs in the Vietnam war marries a blind Vietnamese woman; after they travel together back to Vietnam, he finds salvation in origami. A priggish Yale anthropologist discovers the "Holy Wind" of the Navajo Indians and realizes that his ideas of fitting into the world are meaningless because "a person can't not fit."
And so it goes, essay upon essay, each recounting the moment of satori, or awakening, in which the resister broke through the shell of the ordinary world and passed into a kind of luminous being on the other side. The compilation feels a bit like a New Age breviary -- a "Lives of the Saints" for those who believe that enlightenment is off all the beaten paths of life, deep in the wilderness of the spirit. The title seemed to me an interesting double-entendre, for the book is at its best describing internal resistance -- the barriers that each character encounters in himself that block the passage to freedom and happiness.
For this reader, it was finally too much bathos and didacticism. For all their intensely personal experience, many of the letter writers begin to sound like the others. The attorney who is trying to find life's meaning in his encounter with a grizzly bear has the same tone as the physician who is trying to find life's meaning by working as an orderly in a cancer detection center in the Philippines. And there's such a solemnity about these quests that when one letter-writer explains "I was probably insufferable in my self-righteousness," this reader felt like exclaiming: No kidding!
It's hard not to see this book in very contemporary terms, since it appears at a time when millions of Americans, enraged by the excesses of the Bush administration's war on terrorism, feel about their government the way Owen Daniels does about the Office of Inland Security. But these fables, however timely, express themes that have been central to Lopez's fiction and nonfiction for several decades: the lure of faraway places, indigenous cultures and spiritual journeys into light and silence.
Lopez offered this advice to writers in an introduction to his 1998 collection of essays, About This Life: "Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar." That's what seems to animate this book, too, and the nine imaginary resisters who populate it.
Lopez's National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams, was so entrancing because he married his love of distant places and unfamiliar cultures to an intense investigation of the history and literature of other Arctic travelers -- so that the book seemed to contain everything that could be said about that frozen wilderness, in something like the way that Moby-Dick seems to contain every possible fact about whales. Resistance is a very different sort of book. It tries so hard to teach in its nine pithy evocations of the true path that it comes off as a bit pedantic. Lopez fans will enjoy the evocation of exotic lands and native peoples. And many will share the animating spirit of Lopez's rebels: "We will not be the servants of your progress." But those whose taste in fiction runs less toward the moral of the story and more toward the story itself may be disappointed. *
David Ignatius is a Paris-based columnist for The Washington Post and author of five novels, including "Siro."