In his beautifully written new travel memoir, “The Longest Way Home,” actor-director Andrew McCarthy casts himself as a modern-day Odysseus, struggling to get back to his own patiently waiting Penelope – the soon-to-be wife he identifies as “D.”
Only the challenges he encounters have not been stirred up by a wrathful sea god. Rather they’re the product of his own roiling psyche.
“I love that,” he says of “The Odyssey” analogy, although he adds, “in fairness, I am writing travel articles.”
McCarthy is perhaps best known as a member of the so-called “Brat Pack” – whose films, including “Pretty in Pink” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” helped define the generation that came of age in the 1980s. But he has of late also won acclaim as editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler and the author of probing, even poetic, pieces that chart the inner landscape.
Or as McCarthy puts it, “the only way out is in. …I go away so that I can come home a better version of myself.”
THE IMPERFECT BALANCE
“The whole notion of travel as escape has never been my experience,” he says. “You drag it all with you. The only things you leave behind are your safe, comfortable habits.”
In “The Longest Way Home,” (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, Inc., $26). McCarthy leaves the safety and comfort of his acting and directing career in New York City, which has included episodes of “Gossip Girl” and the various “Law & Order” series, to climb Kilimanjaro, cruise the Amazon and trek through Patagonian glaciers and Costa Rican rain forests. It’s all in an attempt really to understand why he’s not ready to marry D, a wise, sociable filmmaker who’s the mother of his daughter and an equally devoted stepmother to his son by a previous marriage. (The subtitle of the book is “One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down.”)
There are several factors that prevent this from being yet another story about yet another man who can’t commit to yet another woman. One is McCarthy’s uncompromising portrait of the journey, including his unsparing depiction of himself as a rather solitary person who remains something of a mystery. This longing for solitude seems to have been born in part from being the quiet middle child of a remote, raging father and an engaging but sickly mother in suburban New Jersey.
But what really elevates the book is McCarthy’s willingness to plumb one of life’s essential questions: What do we owe others in this world and what do we owe ourselves?
“That is the crux of the matter,” he says. “How do we find that balance? My wife begins with ‘us’ and finds the ‘me,’ whereas I need to bring ‘me’ to ‘us.’”
In negotiating what he calls an “impossible balance,” McCarthy experiences turning points on the daunting pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain – where he has an epiphany about travel as the journey into the self – and on an outing with his future in-laws in Vienna.
“You never know what those places will be,” he says. “That’s what the road does. It opens us up.”
But perhaps the most poignant “negotiation” between self and others comes when he finds himself traveling with strangers aboard an Amazonian riverboat.
“That’s your dream, baby,” D says with a laugh when he calls her. “Surrounded by strangers with no exit.”
Yet when McCarthy encounters a village child with a life-threatening infection that has left her tongue blackened and swollen, he is moved to tears and to tell the other passengers about this. He thinks the story has made them uncomfortable. Still, on the last night of the trip, each presents him with a business card and an offer to help her. (The little girl, Doris, is now fine.)
“Suddenly,” he writes, “ tears are burning in my eyes; quickly I excuse myself. I’m not sure if it’s their concern or the feeling of unwitting connection with these strangers that has snuck up on me that has taken me so off guard.”
STORIES TO VISIT
It’s this gift and passion for storytelling that feeds, and is fed, by McCarthy’s work as an actor and director and that sets him apart as a travel writer. The Society of American Travel Writers named him Travel Journalist of the Year in 2010 and honored him with its Grand Award last year.
While he’d love to go to Myanmar “before McDonald’s gets there now that (the country) has opened up (to the West),” he adds, “I usually find the story I want to tell before I find the place.”
And so he’s off to Darjeeling in search of the tale of the perfect cup of tea – a subject inspired by the habit he’s developed, thanks to his Irish-born wife.
“Stories help me describe the world,” he says. “When you read them, they have this visceral effect: ‘I want to go there’ or ‘I’ve had a 15-minute vacation.’”
And if the actual vacation or the travel assignment turns out to be like the real “Odyssey,” well, McCarthy chalks it up to adventure.
“I find once things go terribly wrong that’s the moment they’re about to get better.”
Watch Andrew McCarthy in “Christmas Dance” on the Hallmark Channel Dec. 9. For more, visit andrewmccarthy.com.