By Brian Bouldrey
Published September 2007
Reviewed September 25, 2008
In the first chapter of Brian Bouldrey’s “Honorable Bandit,” prior to his departure for a hike across the Mediterranean island of Corsica, a friend gives him a leather-bound journal. Bouldrey replies he’s not sure what he’s going to write in it, as he hasn’t learned what’s going to go wrong on the journey, but he knows that he’ll use the pages to press distinct flora as the trek progresses.
In many ways, “Honorable Bandit” feels like a transcription of that finished journal. It captures the walk across Corsica as if Bouldrey was writing it down minute by minute, speckled with random trail observations and going off into the sort of thoughts one gets when moving their feet is all the challenge they need. However, the journal motif extends far enough to leave the book a touch disjointed.
“Honorable Bandit” follows Bouldrey and his friend Petra on the GR20, a hike through the diagonal length of Corsica. As the two go down the path, Bouldrey shares his thoughts on the sweeping or painful mountain ranges, esoteric fellow hikers and the island’s unique customs. He’s certainly chosen the right area to take a walk in: politically French but culturally apart, birthplace of the family vendetta and a history peppered with invasions.
Corsica is certainly overwhelming, but Bouldrey dwells a bit too much on first impressions. The prose feels forced or rough in several areas, such as three consecutive sentences which are all similes describing parts of the trail or a worn fellow hiker. A particular annoyance comes up when, during one leg of the travel, he goes off on a tangent and then says “But I’m getting ahead of myself” no less than three times in a fashion that almost seems designed to annoy a reader.
But this digression is offset with a simple explanation: it is Bouldrey’s intent to disrupt the reader, not to annoy exactly but to replicate his own walking experience. The way he puts it, a walk is “a tramp through landscape carrying a change of clothes and a brainbox full of jostled gears and screws” with “fellow walkers reduced to the role of minor characters.” He seems to want nothing to do with a conventional narrative, but rather to share what gets stirred up as his feet move.
The stirrings of the hike itself are distracting on average, but he gets the book up to its best points when he moves deeper into his thoughts with “Why I Walk” chapters. “Bandit” takes on more of a memoir feel in these chapters, and they seem to show more time and effort on Bouldrey’s part. It’s easy to laugh at a side trip to Michigan where Bouldrey grew up and where a prison is the chief employer, or to cock one’s head as he plays around with words and ponders how they completely change by simply flipping around letters.
Most captivating is when the book goes to San Francisco, a mad and sad swirl through a gay community grown desperate for fun by the onset of AIDS. Bouldrey is at his most heartbreaking in these sections, including an unforgettable passage where his partner’s exact time of death is seen from the grandfather clock he leaned against and stopped the gears.
After his trip is concluded, Bouldrey notes that he began to weep on the plane: “there are dozens of anecdotes, dozens of objects of desire, and yet the trip across Corsica … crumbles into fragments; the only thing that feels whole here is the sense that the entire trip was nothing but a digression.” It may be a digression, but if you walk (or read) long enough “Honorable Bandit” has plenty of interesting thoughts and even a pressed flower or two to give you a deep whiff of Corsica’s spicy atmosphere.