The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World
“. . . ultimately disappoints.”
In his book The Turk Who Loved Apples, Matt Gross “the Frugal Traveler” and former travel writer for the New York Times, relates a story about a particular trip he took to India.
We grin at the devil-may-care attitude of this seasoned traveler, a free spirit who makes himself at home wherever he goes and does not feel obliged to do the usual tourist things on his travels. It doesn’t surprise us that he prefers a cut-rate Indian circus to a tour of the Taj Mahal. In fact, his own book resembles nothing so much as a three-ring circus in its effort to keep several things going at once, as a juggler might attempt to keep a chair, rolling pin, and butcher knife all flying through the air simultaneously without mishap.
Unfortunately, the book does not really succeed in this attempt.
Anyone would enjoy being seated next to Mr. Gross at a dinner party. His world travels, both in the capacity of journalist and as rootless young traveler out to make his way in the world, are varied and interesting, and his policy of avoiding the predictable traps most “tourons,” as he calls them, frequent when they venture away from home surprising and quirky.
But as his use of the term “touron” suggests, The Turk Who Loved Apples does not want to be your typical travel book. It does not offer many concrete tips or suggestions on what to do or not do when traveling or where to venture or not venture. Indeed, Mr. Gross even declares that in writing his frugal traveler column, he found that sort of writing formulaic and boring, not at all revealing about the spirit or soul of a particular place. Apparently, too, he looks on the customary audience for such a column with more than a little skepticism.
As promised, he does offer anecdote after anecdote throughout the book about the colorful characters he has met in the countries he has visited, including the eponymous “Turk who loved apples,” and many others—but to what end, one is not exactly sure. It does not seem sufficient, even to him, to limit the book to this sort of serial tale telling.
When he allows himself to, Mr. Gross does “gastrotourism” (his word) very well. His descriptions of meals he has consumed in Vietnam and elsewhere are vivid and appealing, but he disavows this genre as well and undercuts his descriptions of dining experiences with a very graphic and at times humorous discussion of his experience with an intestinal parasite, Giardia. In another context, Mr. Gross’s parody of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita on this very subject might be hilarious, but here, one finds it merely off-putting.
Similarly, the book’s diction also takes an occasional sudden turn into the neighborhood of four-letter words, shattering any expectations we might have about the stance a writer of a nonfiction work should take with his audience. We might have some doubt at this point as to who the intended audience for the book was supposed to be and into what genre it might actually fit.
Publishers’ and bookstores’ insistence on pigeonholing books may be tiresome, but readers do approach works of different genres differently. Consider the ongoing kerfuffle about the importance of adhering to fact in nonfiction works, which must be kept as strictly separated in this respect from fictional ones as writers can manage. Certainly one reads a work of biography or autobiography differently from a fictional portrait. It is inevitably part of our reception of the work to take all of this into consideration, whether we wish to or not.
So we ask ourselves as the book shifts from erstwhile light travel book to memoir and back again what this book wants to be and find no definitive answer to the question. It is not until the end when we see a hint of what might have been the book’s intended arc.
By the end, with the birth of his daughter, Mr. Gross’s feelings about travel and his former rootlessness have changed. He no longer finds the profession of travel writing congenial and seems engaged in building a sense of home right where he is.
Yet the book’s structure does not lead us inevitably in this direction. To do so, a chronological attack would probably have worked best, an investigation in which Mr. Gross sought in his own experience how and why this change in attitude occurred. Instead, Mr. Gross moves back and forward in time.
This time traveling can sometimes be downright confusing. One minute we are meeting a dubious character on Galiano Island in British Columbia, and the next immersed in earlier reminiscences of the author’s sojourn in Vietnam, a topic associatively linked to the first one because it focuses on the people he met there.
But the discussion drifts away to the music he was listening to then, something that perhaps gives us a clue to the demographics of his intended audience, and his thoughts on mortality and writing. When Mr. Gross shifts again to the story about British Columbia, which he had left hanging in the middle, it is difficult to say what the various threads in the weave gain by this manner of presentation.
In his previous life as a journalist, Mr. Gross was assigned stories, and he learned to excel at making these prompts his own. Evidently, however, he has not yet learned to perform without a net as a writer who generates his own subject, his own material, his own purpose and audience, and produces a sustained work all on his own.
For this first solo flight, it seems that he needed the assistance of a seasoned editor willing to guide him along the route. But this time around, Mr. Gross apparently lacked that sort of gifted and attentive editor.
Though The Turk Who Loved Apples has potential, and Mr. Gross sometimes makes for very engaging company, this book ultimately disappoints. He will eventually find his subject and his mode. When he does, we’ll look forward to seeing what he makes of them.