March 23, 1997

Far Out

Pass the Butterworms: Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered
By Tim Cahill, New York: Villard Books

If you like the title, you will probably like the book. “Pass the Butterworms” is Tim Cahill’s fourth collection of travel journalism, following “Jaguars Ripped My Flesh,” “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg” and “Pecked to Death by Ducks.” In an introduction, Mr. Cahill laments that one recent reviewer, a “nice lady writer who lives back east somewhere,” called the titles “precious.” Rather, he explains, they are a joke that got started when he and some friends were laying the groundwork for Outside magazine. The friends thought the exotic travel stories he was proposing were the same kind found in retro men’s magazines, articles “directed . . . at semiliterate, semi-sad bachelors interested primarily in the ‘nymphos’ who, in this genre, seemed to populate the jungles and mountains at the various ends of the earth.” They said Mr. Cahill would fail. These titles are “a poke in the eye with a sharp stick” for those doubters, as well as a wink at the old genre–”A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg” was actually cribbed from a story in an old magazine called Man’s Adventure.

There are no nymphos in Mr. Cahill’s faraway lands (no butterworms that I could find, either), but there is adventure and, most important, there is Tim Cahill, with his winning, if corny, sense of humor. He jets gamely around the world, filing columns to magazines like Outside and Rolling Stone. He avoids politics—the phrase “third world” is never spoken—and fancy hotels, and seems to prefer being with a group. His humor tends to come at his own expense. He describes in detail how, in calm waters off the gulf coast of Baja California, he managed to capsize his sea kayak: “When your chair falls over backward, there is that awful jolt of disbelief—how could this possibly have happened to me?—followed by a sincere and fervent wish no one has seen you.” On another kayak trip in the Northwest, exploring the woods from a camp on the beach, he falls backward off a pile of rocks and has to be medevacked out.

The worst thing Mr. Cahill might call you is the Lady Who Stated the Obvious or the Dreaded Couple Who Did Not Share My Political Opinions. Still, some pieces are serious, and these, to my eye, are the best. The strongest in the book, “A Darkness on the River,” describes how a friend’s son was murdered while floating a homemade wooden raft down a wild river in Peru. Mr. Cahill accompanied the father and an embassy official to the Indian region where the boy was killed. The precise, dramatic way in which Mr. Cahill re-creates the incident, and his sympathy for the boy’s father, make you suspect, toward the end, that this is more than just a horrifying story for Mr. Cahill; he must be able to imagine the same thing happening to him.

One of the pleasures of “Pass the Butterworms,” in fact, is learning about the author piecemeal as you move from story to story—everything from his malaria to panic attacks following a failed romance. While scuba diving, Mr. Cahill offers what seems an unintended metaphor for his approach to travel: “My style—this compulsion to cover a lot of territory, fast—is called reef running.” In a short piece about the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, he listens to a missionary who is vexed because the local people refuse to wear clothes. One man invites Mr. Cahill to dinner. Afterward, Mr. Cahill sees how close the family members huddle together to keep warm, and how happy this togetherness makes them. This he cites as an example of “family values in the raw.” But the piece isn’t over: Mr. Cahill returns, in a rented car, to his hotel room, the lonely travel writer owning up to the things he doesn’t have. This serious turn, almost an afterthought to the funny one, leaves the more lasting impression—the clown letting you into his dressing room after the performance is over.