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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Moritz Thomsen

At a glance
“The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers”
by Moritz Thomsen

Graywolf Press
276 pages, $$12.95

I’m not the first book reviewer to say this: Moritz Thomsen is the best American writer than no one has ever heard of.

OK, so that’s an exaggeration. Certainly some people are familiar with Thomsen. He published four books, all memoirs, three of which are still in print a full dozen years after his death.

He won a 1991 Governor’s Writers Award (now the Washington State Book Awards), which was natural because he hailed originally from Seattle. The book honored that year, “The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers,” is the November read for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

Thomsen’s best-known book, “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle,” is considered one of the best Peace Corps memoirs every written. His memoir of his years in Ecuador is titled “The Farm on the River of Emeralds,” and his final book “My Two Wars,” which was published three years after his death, is a look at both his tempestuous relationship with his father and his experiences as a World War II bombardier flying missions over Germany.

It’s easy to see why Thomsen isn’t more popular. His works are unsparing looks at his own life, and they emphasize his struggles and all the emotional pain that made his such a tormented existence.

As Pat Joseph wrote in a reminiscence of Thomsen, “(H)is books were grand and valuable and important for the simple reasons that he wrote well about important things and chose to live a life stripped down to its essence. He wrote about himself with such honesty, in the end, that just when you thought he had confessed everything, he would open a new vein and bleed some more.”

What most potential readers miss is how adept Thomsen is at portraying that existence in a way that transcends self-pity and becomes a prose art.

“I've come away from each of his other four books feeling exhilarated,” wrote “Lonesome Dove” novelist Larry McMurtry, “not because of what happens in them, but because the writing is so good.”

Thomsen was 48, a war veteran and a failure at several occupations, when he joined the Peace Corps. He was sent to Ecuador, where he was confronted by the kind of poverty that defies understanding by anyone who has awakened every day of his life in a warm bed.

“Living Poor,” he wrote, “is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things.”

After his three-year Peace Corps stint ended, Thomsen lived in Seattle for a year, and then he returned to Ecuador to buy a farm with his friend, Ramon Prado. The plan was to work the farm as equal partners, but things unraveled (see “The Farm on the River of Emeralds”) and Thomsen ended up buying a farm of his own — and then even giving that up.

At that juncture, Thomsen, a sickly 63 years of age, decides to embark on the trip that makes up the narrative of “The Saddest Pleasure” (which, by the way, comes from a line in Paul Theroux’s novel, “Picture Place”: “Travel is the saddest of the pleasures.”). He recalls that 45 years before, he had taken a pleasure trip with his family — a year-long pleasure cruise during the height of the Depression.

“Now with the same lack of enthhusiasm, and this time with death in the blood, I am getting readey to take another trip,” Thomsen wrote, “it will be similar in its uselessness but carried out in a different style. . . . This trip will not offend my sensibilities. Dollar meals if I can find them; five dollar hotels, if they still exist.”

And so he takes off, heading from Quito, Ecuador, to Bogota, Colombia, and on to Rio de Janeiro. Then he heads up the Amazon, all along the way observing, judging, remembering and passing it all on to us in language that is as self-aware as it is finely phrased.

The following passages are merely part of the proof:

“We are flying over an immense, an oceanic land, the world’s last mysterious and only half-tamed area,” he wrote of the Amazon jungle. “It is a staggering endlessness of looping rivers, islands that appear and disappear in a day, savannas, lakes and swamps, gently rolling jungle or jungle as flat as a pool table, flooded, hostile to man, stretching away to the horizon. And as we pass over it at this very instant, unbelievable and horrifying things are happening. . . .

“At this very instant a jaguar is dropping down upon the sleeping body of an animal, a man; thirty-foot boas are slowly moving in their thousands through the branches of a thusand trees. In a certain place, in a hundred certain places, the rivers are boiling as school of piranhas tear at something dying in the water, and in certain places ten miles square, down there somewhere where the leaves of trees hang as motionless as death, the cry of night birds is the only sound in that profound stillness; the only sound except for that plane up there above the clouds rushing through the night.”

In the end, “The Saddest Pleasure” is an extended trip into one man’s experience. We are witness to every emotion, from anguish to rage, that has ended up shaping his adult world view. It isn’t always a pretty sight, and it ends with a vision of the future that is as shattering as it seems cynical.

But as any fan of Thomsen will tell you, he renders that vision as beautifully as anyone ever has.

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