July 2010

Emma Kat Richardson

nonfiction

Turn Left at the Trojan Horse: A Would-Be Hero's American Odyssey by Brad Herzog

Who among us -- well, those of us benefiting from an education a step above “inner-city,” anyway -- hasn’t slogged through a tattered, freshman-year edition of The Odyssey, followed closely by its tenth grade counterpart, The Iliad? Almost as rare as an island populated entirely by one-eyed monsters (non-pornographically speaking, of course) is the fully literate individual for whom the voyages of Odysseus or the epic bloodbath of the Trojan War ring unregistered. More to the point, few works of literature are as polarizing as these of which we speak. As a dutiful ninth-grade public school pupil, I can recall with vivid detail the plaintive displeasure with which my classmates and I received a curriculum that transitioned from Heller to Homer. How exactly could we, the PlayStation-toting, Internet-surfing generation, be expected to relate and identify with the high-seas trials of one Odysseus, king of Ithaka and world-class shitty decision maker?

These inquires of literary relevance -- and more -- are pondered at great length by memoirist/professional nomad Brad Herzog. As a travel writer and exploration pontificator, Herzog’s previous volumes, States of Mind and Small World, earned critical acclaim and even a coveted recommendation from the venerable hippies over at the Lonely Planet universe, who ranked Herzog’s work up with the titans of travel lit; narrative greats like Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck.

Then as now, Herzog’s most recent work, Turn Left at the Trojan Horse: A Would-Be Hero’s American Odyssey, finds our plucky protagonist packing it all up, shrugging off the responsibilities of the 9-to-5 punch-clock drone, and slugging it out across the American terrain. In lieu of a fleet of ships, Herzog’s modern-day incarnation of Homer’s most notorious hero sets sail from aboard the SS Winnebago Aspect. Rather than encountering ferocious beasts and stoned, starry-eyed Lotus Eaters, Herzog hopscotches between one American small-town hamlet after another, where the most threatening presence arrives courtesy of suspected Tea Party members. He takes not a war-weary and beleaguered -- if fatally flawed -- crew with him; instead, Herzog travels with only his mission at hand and a determination for self-discovery as companions.

It sounds like a pretty lonely order to fill, but the characters who populate his plain of not-so-aimless wandering spin enough yarns and provide plenty of down-home charm to keep Herzog (and, not to mention, his readers) sufficiently steeped in rootsy wisdom. All this takes place over the course of a journey that begins in Mount Olympus, and aptly-named Seattle tourist attraction, and commences at a Cornell college reunion in -- where else? -- Ithaca, New York. Along the way, the tiny, sparsely populated hamlets of Troy, Athena, and Siren are met with curious receptiveness by Herzog as he and his lumbering Aspect traipse through the wild, untamed and rugged northern American landscape. Lessons are learned; philosophy, be it Greek, modern, or just plain universal, makes several unsolicited guest appearances.

Unlike I and my classmates of yesteryear, Herzog obviously has a great affinity and unwavering respect for the Greek greats who predicated his epic journey, and his vast knowledge shines through in elaborate detail. Each of the pages here reads like an abridged history lesson on the great hits in Greek literature, transcending to include not only a specified Homeric focus but nearly all of Greek lore and literature rolled together into one, from the Greeks’ creation myths and the legend of the god-defying titans to the slutty antics of Zeus and his penchant for John Edwards-ian philandering. (One has to imagine a vengeful Elizabeth Edwards, like Zeus’s put-upon wife Hera, wielding a lightning bolt from atop Mount Olympus and grin, satisfied, just a little bit.) But more intriguing than a mere display of deep-seeded knowability on the Greeks and their cultural trendsetting foundations, Herzog even does most formidable translators one better by rendering the work relatable and relevant to even the most skeptical of sneering, reluctant scholars. As with most kids, my problem with The Odyssey was that it seemed irrelevant and useless -- a forgotten artifact about as applicable to my 15-year-old daily existence as Helen of Troy’s Proactiv-free beauty secrets. Indeed, as with most grubby, cynical adolescents, I was much quicker to identify with the emotional tribulations suffered by Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye’s favorite grumbling knave, than those over land and sea described by a possibly-fictitious Homer.

But in Turn Left at the Trojan Horse, Homer meets Holden in the dynamic persona of forty-ish, balding, directionless everyman Herzog, and the marriage of the three makes for endlessly readable, never dull prose -- not to mention one hell of a voyage to undergo by proxy. Like Herzog’s journey itself, Turn Left begins a bit on the rocky side, betraying our hero’s uncertainty about life, liberty, the definition of heroism itself, and all the other oft-explored quandaries of the middle-aged being. In the beginning, at least, it’s difficult at times not to dismiss his fledgling identity crisis as bourgeois -- the plight of the privileged. After all, Odysseus was forced to face down demons as real as the man-eating teeth they bared; the demons of Herzog’s conscious collective exist only so far as his imagination will go. Soon enough, however, things begin to smooth out, and spending time in Herzog’s world and its salt of the earth citizenry is as entertaining and enjoyable as it is educational and thought-provoking. By the time he (and, by extension, we) finally reach Ithaca in a rush of triumphant glory, it’s as though those seeds of self-doubt were never sown to begin with.

For many, The Odyssey may remain a treasured classic, Herzog himself no doubt among them. For many more still, it maintains a reputation for reluctant page-turning and stilted, dubiously modern timeless lore. But really, what adventurous individual with a qualifiable zest for life is going to turn their nose up at the prospect of flying through the nation’s patchwork civilization from aboard a Winnebago? Herzog’s certainly not, and neither am I. Hop aboard and smile the whole way through the ride.

Turn Left at the Trojan Horse: A Would-Be Hero’s American Odyssey by Brad Herzog
Citadel Press
ISBN: 9780806532028
307 Pages