Wonder Travels: a memoir

Image of Wonder Travels: A Memoir
Release Date: 
September 12, 2023
Roundabout Press
Reviewed by: 

Wonder Travels marks the return of author Josh Barkan. His prior award-winning fiction includes the short story collections Mexico and Before Hiroshima and the novel Blind Speed. Here Barkan offers an unflinching personal memoir of his divorce, subsequent descent into obsessive grief, his efforts to resolve his anger and sorrow, and his difficulties moving on. He recounts a punishing two-year quest to put betrayal and heartache to rest, an emotional and physical odyssey through despair along thousands of geographic miles from Manhattan to El Paso, Mexico, Madrid, Morocco, and Rome.

Wonder Travels is an epic journey story of travel through both inner psychic territory and the external world. It’s an unsentimental story of lost innocence. Barkan writes like a man on the lam, wounded, trying to escape, in the grip of what he calls “the Kerouac syndrome.” But he can’t outrun his pain. He carries it with him as he hunts down his wife’s lover, trying to find himself again. Barkan is honest and brutal as he describes his fury, his accusatory grief, his self-pity and self-disgust, his sense of damage. Both the author’s interior landscape and the expressionistic backdrop of the places he careens through are rendered with vivid detail. The memoir is often written in present tense, like pages ripped from a diary.

Though the fever-dream story ultimately breaks and moves from total darkness to chiaroscuro, overall there is much more shadow than light, more cruelty than kindness, especially in the first raw account of the author’s disintegration in a bleak Manhattan apartment and divorce lawyer’s office, and the dive bars of El Paso where he hits bottom. To the reader’s relief, Barkan’s agony eases a bit as he travels south, and in Mexico City he meets and begins to fall in love with an artist. The first time they sleep together the electricity fails, but she lights candles and the nascent couple generate their own light and heat, and the curse of post-divorce impotence is broken.

Still the past won’t let go, or Barkan can’t quite let his pain go. Determined to find the man with whom his wife betrayed him, he travels onward, to the ends of the earth—his earth, at any rate, Morocco. He hikes into the dusty Atlas Mountains, “walking the past out of his blood,” and finally finds the man, the confrontation, and the closure, he’s been chasing for two years.

Afterward, he makes one final stop along his pilgrimage route: Rome. He bikes and sweats what’s left of the past out of his blood, and discovers he no longer needs to obsessively remember and re-tell his story of trauma and loss to everyone he encounters. At last he’s ready to return to Mexico, to his new love, to establish a new home.

So this torturous journey ends with new lovers meeting. A soft, or soft enough landing, but with no assumption of enduring happily ever after. As Barkan poignantly says, “It’s reality. It’s the way the world really works. You can run away from New York and fall in love with a painter in Mexico City . . . and feel you’ve left the world of sadness and chaos behind but in the end there are hearts to be fixed and money to be scrounged.”

Nevertheless, the author, changed and tempered, has survived. Recovery and mending has begun. Perhaps writing the memoir, pinning the experience on the page, is really the last time this brave and powerful writer needs to tell this story. Wonder Travels is not an easy read, but it may serve as a guide, and the author a companion, for others trying to navigate a lonely, dark wood of broken assumptions and promises, trying to find a path toward tentative, qualified hope.