When NPR contributor Scott Huler made one more attempt to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses, he had no idea it would launch an obsession with the book’s inspiration: the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey and the lonely homebound journey of its Everyman hero, Odysseus.No-Man’s Lands is Huler’s funny and touching exploration of the life lessons embedded within The Odyssey, a legendary tale of wandering and longing that could be read as a veritable guidebook for middle-aged men everywhere. At age forty-four, with his first child on the way, Huler felt an instant bond with Odysseus, who fought for some twenty years against formidable difficulties to return home to his beloved wife and son. In reading The Odyssey, Huler saw the chance to experience a great vicarious adventure as well as the opportunity to assess the man he had become and embrace the imminent arrival of both middle age and parenthood.But Huler realized that it wasn’t enough to simply read the words on the page—he needed to live Odysseus’s odyssey, to visit the exotic destinations that make Homer’s story so timeless. And so an ambitious pilgrimage was born . . . traveling the entire length of Odysseus’s two-decade journey. In six months.Huler doggedly retraced Odysseus’s every step, from the ancient ruins of Troy to his ultimate destination in Ithaca. On the way, he discovers the Cyclops’s Sicilian cave, visits the land of the dead in Italy, ponders the lotus from a Tunisian resort, and paddles a rented kayak between Scylla and Charybdis and lives to tell the tale. He writes of how and why the lessons of The Odyssey—the perils of ambition, the emptiness of glory, the value of love and family—continue to resonate so deeply with readers thousands of years later. And as he finally closes in on Odysseus’s final destination, he learns to fully appreciate what Homer has been saying all along: the greatest adventures of all are the ones that bring us home to those we love. Part travelogue, part memoir, and part critical reading of the greatest adventure epic ever written, No-Man’s Lands is an extraordinary description of two journeys—one ancient, one contemporary—and reveals what The Odyssey can teach us about being better bosses, better teachers, better parents, and better people.
As this literary travelogue opens, NPR contributor and author Huler (Defining the Wind) sounds like he's going to renege on his 2001 pledge never to read James Joyce's Ulysses. He joins a Ulysses reading group, but finds himself more fascinated by the story behind it: Homer's The Odyssey, which he'd also never read. A plan is born: to retrace Odysseus' twenty-year travels. Huler's first challenge is that nobody really knows where any of the locations actually are-finding them, he says, is like hunting for the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. Although Huler initially tries too hard to relate his slapdash wanderings to the text (a ride on a Homer-themed cruise has him saying, "I found myself among these magical seafarers, exactly like Odysseus"), he eventually gives in to the randomness of his travels, and the book is all the better for it. While fighting his way onto crowded ferries or showing up in tiny hamlets with no hotel reservations, he has some realizations about the man he's following and about journeying as its own reward. Huler's book is not without flaws, but in essence, as he himself concludes about The Odyssey's continuing appeal, "the story has good bones."