September 2004

Liz Miller


Going to the Sun by James McManus

Laughing at death comes a lot easier if you live with its shadow daily -- at least, that seems to be the case for Penelope, the self-conscious, self-destructive All-But-Dissertation on an epic adventure northward. In riding her bicycle from Chicago to Alaska, she's ostensibly seeking inspiration for her paper on the works of Samuel Beckett. But in reality, the months alone on the road are a chance for her to confront the two great tragedies in her life -- her Type I diabetes, which has forever guaranteed her an early death preceded by years of ill health, and the grizzly bear mauling of her boyfriend David several years ago. The site of the latter is her final destination on this journey, but as she pedals forward the past proves harder to leave behind, and the destination becomes yet more vague. Is she heading towards the future? Towards emotional closure? Or towards something much more definite?

Told in first person and dripping with lush detail, Going to the Sun is an immersive trip northward, the litter on the pavement as richly captured as the expansive sky. The mundanity of riding a bike -- wobbling wheels, chafed crotch, grease marks on the inner right calve -- is as tangible as Penny's wry, rubbed raw inner monologue. On several occasions I actually stopped reading to check the back cover to make sure that James McManus was actually a man. Penny is so effortlessly a real woman, a person I could meet on the street, smart, strong, a little bit bitchy, and endlessly sympathetic. I've rarely seen a male writer capture a woman -- not the male perception of a woman, but an actual WOMAN -- so well.

So it's really fortunate that the book is so well-written, its characters so engaging and easy to empathize with, because it is not easy to overcome the obstacle of a premise that smacks slightly of the ridiculous. The standard "What are you reading?" question over the past few weeks has been a hard one to answer, because explaining the grizzly bears and the bicycles seems to make people feel very confused. Why a bicycle trip? they ask, and I say that I don't know. But in truth, I do:

Nearly a decade ago, while on a family vacation, I rode down an Alaskan mountain as part of a tour group. It was easy pedaling -- we drove up to the top of the road with the bikes, then spent most of the descent coasting down. While the incredible views and so very fresh air have mostly faded from memory, one moment will always be with me: hitting a rough patch of gravel at nearly twenty miles per hour, the bike's front wheel shaking back and forth at the impact, oscillating wildly in the midst of this tiny minefield.

For one moment, I was lost.

Clenching the handlebars, I used all the strength I had in me to keep the bike steady, my arms rigid with the effort, my eyes squeezing shut as I stayed focused on staying upright, no direction but straight forward in my mind.

But for a second, one moment of time too short to measure, I wondered what would happen if I just let go. It felt like flying, that thought. It was the scariest one I'd ever had.

So why a bicycle trip? Because the world is cushioned and safe so often. But with nothing between you and the world, your transportation stripped down to twenty pounds of aluminum and rubber, the harsh pavement always waiting for your crumpling form, contemplation of the eternal comes much easier.

Going to the Sun by James McManus
ISBN: 0312423292
352 Pages