- Traveling Everywhere and Nowhere
When Justin Andrews travels, he globe trots across linguistic maps and the pages of atlases stained by sweat, blood, and mango juice. His prose is a careful step in the direction of distraction and poetics, transcending the simple came, saw, conquered mechanics of travel writing to become the disembodied voice behind the hostel curtain. Andrews is no casual voyager. When he travels, he goes where the average American does not and perceives what the average American cannot. He spends time seemingly soaking in his environments, observing the nuances of the moments between slideshow snapshots and world wonders like an "anthropologist spy" without a clear-cut mode of inquiry. He isn't searching, but instead stumbling—uncovering the unexpected in a way that feels inadvertent. To make a partially tangential claim, let me say this: I've never read Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling travel memoir of self-affirmation Eat, Pray, Love (2006) (and perhaps it's unfair to gesture to it now), but I suspect that in [End Page 20] a perfect world, it would not be a bestseller. No, in an idealized universe, when homebound escapists sought stories of exotic locales, they would shudder at Gilbert's privileged hunt for enlightenment and pick up Andrews's slight volume The Concrete of Tight Places.
The Concrete of Tight Places plays out in bits and pieces, like two-minute short episodes of Globe Trekker directed in collaboration between Michelangelo Antonioni and a more lyrically inclined Ernest Hemingway. Divided into sections marked by locale (Cairo, Bangor, Mizoram) or labeled for the advice it offers (What to Bring, Getting There and Away), Andrews plays with the language of the annual travel guide. It is at once as impossible to shake the referential experience of flipping through a Fodor's or Frommer's as it is to ground Andrews's writing and assign it to real life, to a familiar physical location. Andrews opens in Cairo, a city we can all associate with our own understanding of ancient history, and immediately destabilizes our notions of its dusty grandeur with witty bits that feel snatched from some New Sincerest picaresque. "Cairo is the greatest city in the world unless you don't like it," Andrews writes wryly. It's a statement that might be true enough, but which resonates amidst other sentences of simple construction and spartan displacement as, well, profound. This is something Andrews specializes in: the starkly astute turn of phrase. His short sections are filled with clever little gems. When he writes on Nagoya (to save you the Wikipedia scramble, it's the fourth most populated city in Japan) in four short paragraphs, he shrouds its mundane urban status in mystery, saying, "In a city of people doing lots of things that no one knows about because no one has ever been there there is a secret." The question is never "what secret," but instead an acceptance that of course there's a secret. The sentence itself, in terms of its construction, is a secret. Yet, while isolated portions of Andrews's work would be fitting on the otherwise blank white pages of some as yet unwritten gift book of Zen backpacker's wisdom, in context, they are never cloying and always too simplistically honest to drip of any sort of ironic pretention.
Though at times the prose veers towards charming and discreetly humorous, Concrete is ultimately a rather somber, very personal affair. Make no mistake; this is a beautifully wrought book touched with wanderlust and sadness. Travels to foreign lands in one's own company can be an out-of-body experience. It is a culture shock so intense that it inversely becomes a sensory deprivation chamber in which you are left in the dark with your thoughts for hour after hour. With Concrete, we are not supplied with reference to fellow travelers. There are plenty of glimpses at the natives, but ultimately, the sense is that Andrews is moving very much in isolation, writing the sorts of hazy, semi-dark missives...