Muir and Roosevelt

The lake’s resident loon eyes the sudden disturbance to its serene lake with suspicion. The dull clunks of paddles on aluminum echo across the darkening waters as a pair of tired canoers ply their way toward a low-lying peninsula. After five lakes, a beaver dam-filled creek, and seven portages, the paddlers are alone in the midst of the wilderness. A sudden wind picks up tosses their canoe from side to side, an ominous reminder of how alone they are if something goes wrong.

Evan had hatched this journey just the week before. He’d imagined it as a restorative trip before the start of his senior year, a chance to be alone with his favorite confidante, a rising junior named Mark who’d moved to Duluth the year before. Mark is an outcast in northern Minnesota, the precocious child of a family that had accumulated vast wealth on Wall Street before a string of affairs and divorces had driven them to attempt a refresh along the shores of Lake Superior. His father had paid Evan’s freight to an exclusive hockey camp earlier in the summer, so this invitation seemed the best way he could pay Mark back, even if a canoeing permit pales in comparison to a week with a host of ex-NHLers. But Mark, he knows, appreciates the gesture, and welcomes a chance to escape the juvenile locker room antics that bore him.

What he did not count on was Mark’s complete disinterest in stopping to gaze up at the eagle in the tree on the second lake, or to study the flowers and listen to the birdsong along the creek. Evan had hoped to revisit a couple of lakes he’d paddled with his dad five years earlier, but instead, they’ve pushed themselves to the limit, traveled about as humanly far from civilization as possible. But while Mark has set the pace, Evan finds himself drunk off his longing for ever greater solitude, and takes a perverse pride when Mark is the first one to suggest they bring their day’s journey to an end.

“Okay, would really like to find a campsite before dark, bro.”

“It says there should be one here.” Evan grimaces as he stares down at the sopping wet map while still taking halfhearted paddle strokes.

Mark surveys a rock-strewn shoreline that fronts a dense thicket of tamaracks. “There isn’t.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Give it here.” Mark leans over the bulging packs in the center of the canoe, stops to stabilize the rocking craft amid the chop, and snags the map.

“Oh, come on. Learn to read. It’s on the next point.”

“Fine, fine. Maybe wanna help me out here?” Evan paddles frantically to guide the canoe away from the rocks. Their chatter, incessant all afternoon, dies as they swing their bulky craft back outward into the lake and steer it into the next bay, where the waves return to a manageable level.

“The mosquitoes are getting me even with all this wind,” Mark grumbles, his paddle strokes reduced to feeble splashes as he slaps at his barren knees. “I need more bug dope. God, why did we think this was a good idea?”

“You’re cute when you’re angry.”

“Oh, shut it.” Mark resists the urge to pile on. It’s the sort of thing his dad would do on one of their family vacations to the Caribbean when he inevitably lashed out at his mother for being late for dinner or forgetting to buy enough rum. He is not his father. For that matter, Evan is not his mother. Mark’s dad sometimes had a point, even if the way he expressed it usually led Mark to hide in his room, where the goalie-in-training would bounce tennis balls off his wall and try to stop them from getting past him. His release had the added benefit of making an obnoxious racket that would occasionally distract his parents from their yelling. Occasionally.

“Damn, now we’re going straight into the sunset,” Mark complains.

“You could, you know, actually wear your cap forwards to shade your eyes.”

“C’mon Evs, you know I’m too vain for that shit.”

“I’m sure you’re gonna pick up a lot of girls out here.”

“Little sympathy here? Not all of us can have perfect girlfriends like you.”

“I tried to get Bridget to come, but she won’t sleep in a tent. And I don’t think my mom would’ve gone for that anyway.”

“I love how your mom thinks she’d be a bad influence on you, but just loves me.”

“Well, you are scary good at fooling adults into thinking you’re not the little shit that you are.”

“You’re not half bad yourself.”

Evan grumbles but settles for channeling his mixed emotions into a few powerful strokes. Mark is right, of course: compared to much of the hockey team he’s the quiet and articulate one, the one who’s seen a bit more in life than most. He’s built himself an image as the saint. But when he looks at his own conduct over the past year—sneaking out to surf when he can, the stolen moments with his girlfriend, lying through his teeth at those events where role model high school athletes tell younger kids to stay away from parties—he hardly thinks he deserves that reputation. The simple fact that he’s drawn to the likes of Mark instead of some more modest friends, he suspects, shows where his true loyalties lie. No regrets, he tells himself, or at least not any glaring and lasting ones.

“Heyo…look, there’s a campsite,” Mark announces, breaking Evan’s reverie. “Amazing what you can find when you can read a map. Nice big rocks, should block out all this wind.”

“Means we’re gonna get eaten alive by bugs.”


“It’s this or another portage at dusk. Remember how much you hated the last one?”

Mark swats a mosquito on his arm and eyes the flies circling his head warily. “The portages only suck when you’re on them. Easy to bounce back from. Just like going over the boards for another shift, right?”

“Like you’d know, ya damn goalie. We do that next one, you’re carrying the canoe and doing the cooking in the dark.”

“Actually now that you mention it, this site here looks just fine.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Evan guides the canoe into a rocky landing, and a few clunks of aluminum on rocks again shatter the silence of the lake. Mark hops out and maintains some measure of grace as he pulls the prow into a small bite in the shore. He dances a mosquito-directed jig as Evan clambers over the bags and on to dry land. They haul their bags and the canoe up on to an embankment and collapse on to the log alongside the fire ring.

“Well, considering how far we came, we made damn good time,” says Evan, tracing their route on the map. “Course it helps when your travel partner only has one speed and is getting D-I scouts looking at him…”

“Would’ve been faster if those dicks at the second portage didn’t take up the whole landing.”

“Not sure if they were more bitter about how we went blasting past them or what you said to them.”

“It needed to be said. Might be my first time in here, but at least I know my freaking etiquette.”

“Glad you paid attention to that Leave No Trace video.”

“Or I’m just a model of decency. East Coast class, baby.”

Evan’s eyes roll into the back of his head, but the buzzing mosquitoes distract him from a retort. They’re out for blood, so he picks out a tent pad and sets Mark to staking it out while he fumbles for the cooking gear.

“Where’d you get all this stuff?” Mark asks as he admires the little-used tent.

“It’s left over from my dad.”

“He was outdoorsy?”

“In a good, Minnesotan way. Camped, fished, hunted. Learned it from his dad, taught me enough to get by.”

“You did all that, too?” Mark asks. Evan has surprised him before, but he has yet to get him to join in one of his trail runs or early morning swims across the lake at a mutual friend’s cabin. For good or ill Evan isn’t ever one to rebel against a group, even as he stays in careful control of himself. He is an utter conformist, if at least a thoughtful one. This invitation into the wilderness was a shock, the closest thing to a risk he’s ever seen. Unless he’s hiding more? Mark has seen Evan’s brooding look just often enough to believe his friend may be capable of things he doesn’t let on.

“I know, I know. Never really liked fishing, thought it was boring. I was way too much of a mama’s boy to ever kill anything. My mom’s sold off the guns now anyway. Your dad ever do much like that?”

“My mom’s family did, actually, but nah, you can’t catch my dad sleeping on anything other than Egyptian cotton. He likes his nature, but from a safe distance. And he’s pro-Second Amendment since he’s a good Republican, but god forbid he actually pull a trigger himself.”

“Figures,” says Evan. This is either the seventh or eighth time Mark has bemoaned his father’s hypocrisy since the start of the day, a habit that long ago wore thin. “Hey, you know how to use a water filter?”

“No freaking clue.”

“Here, I’ll teach you. Come on down here…just watch, it’s not hard.”

“Emma tried to get me to drink lake water straight once. That was a red flag right there.”

“That was your Silver Bay girlfriend?”

“Yup. Total granola girl.”

“Somehow I don’t see that being your type.”

“Eh. Fun to fool around with, but so damn flaky.”

“Now that I can see.”

“We’d go on day hikes so we could make out in the woods and smoke some pot. Or, mostly, she smoked pot and I played along just enough to seem cool so I’d get what I want.”

Evan groans. “Don’t know why you’d need an altered state what you’re already sort of in one just being out here. God, I love it. Or, I guess it would be more of an unaltered state. Untouched by man, cept for us campers.” He smiles, hoping to draw at least some momentary appreciation for their surroundings out of Mark.

“And the loggers who clear cut the whole thing and gave us the forest as it is now. Or the natives who managed it forever before that. Or—”

“God you always ruin things.”

“Plus I hope you don’t mind a little altering after dinner.”

“Shit, man. What’d you bring?”

“Whiskey.” Mark fetches a bottle from his pack and slams it down next to the sputtering camp stove. “Hauled that over all those portages, it better be good.”

“Damn. You ever had Scotch before? Where’d you get it?”

“Nope. But divorce has its pluses.”

“I should’ve known,” Evan says, shaking his head. “Your mom’s little prince gets everything he wants.”

“She’ll do anything to make me like her after what she put me through. Kinda sad, but I’m gonna milk it for all it’s worth.”

“And I’m sure the kind that comes in a plastic bottle is the top shelf stuff.”

“Here, let’s take a swig. Worth celebrating that we made it this far.”

“I’m game.” Evan suppresses his natural fear, cracks the bottle, and knocks it back. “Woah. That’s fiery. Way better than most of the cheap stuff we normally get.”

Mark follows suit. “Yeah, this I can do. Good call, me.” He kicks back and takes a second sip, freed from momentary mosquito annoyance, and musters up his cockiest smile.

“God, we’re terrible.”

“Come on, Evs. You and me, we’re some of the most responsible people out there. I’m not gonna feel guilty that I can handle my shit.”

“Good way to put it…but I’m gonna remember that line next time I have to babysit hung over Marky.”

“Harsh, harsh. What’s for dinner, anyway?”

“Pasta. Only thing I know how to make, so I hope you like it.”

“Well, we can wash it down pretty easy.”

“Only then we’ll have to pee when the bugs come out.”

“‘When they come out?’ They’re already draining pints.”

“Oh, just wait till dark when it gets totally still.”

“So much for campfires and marshmallows.”

“I’m sure you’re real sad we’re not gonna get to sit around and tell ghost stories.”

“You know I love my alone time with my Evs. Gotta steal you away from Bridget every chance I get.”

“She does say you’re the best third wheel she knows.”

“What an honor. Real fun for me to hang at your place when you’re banging however many times a week.”

“Oh, shut it. As if you don’t wheel with the best of them.”

“Just…nah. Doin my best not to moan. I’ll get there.”

“That’s my Marks. Hey, we’re boiling here.”

“Thank God.”

Dinner is a rushed affair, one punctuated by the steady staccato of mosquito swats and a chorus of curses from Mark, interspersed by the occasional grumble from Evan. After the dinner Evan washes the plates as rapidly as he can while Mark surprises himself by successfully hanging a bear bag on his first attempt. Confident that he’s completed every task on his checklist, Evan deems their evening a success. The Scotch bottle then heads straight into the tent, where the two boys take long pulls during their search-and-destroy mission aimed at the mosquitoes who have made it in the doors.

“Ah, damn, this one’s inside too. How are we supposed to sleep with all this buzzing?” gripes Mark as he smashes another bug into the mesh door.

“They’ll die down. Maybe if we’re lucky we can go out and look at stars later. Can you grab my book from the bag?”

“Yeah, what you got…a John Muir bio? Hah. Someone’s stickin with the theme.”

“What do you have, backlogged Wall Street Journals?”

“Close enough. Last four copies of The Economist.”

“God, you’re predictable, you tool.”

“As if you aren’t, ya damn hippie.”

“I read one book about Muir and now I’m a hippie?”

“You do kinda have that vibe.”

“What vibe? Like I smoke pot and drive a flower bus?”

“Nah. Just okay spending time with yourself in the woods.”

“Huh, wonder why I’d have that after what’s happened in my life.”

“Not everyone goes that direction when the shit hits the fan.”

“As you always remind me.” Evan smirks at Mark to show his dig is all in good fun, and Mark shrugs in concession and returns to his magazine. His eyes travel across the text, but retain little: the light is bad, and even he has to admit that a bunch of sarcastic Brits’ thoughts on inflation in sub-Saharan Africa don’t quite fit the mood of the moment. He takes another swig from the bottle and casts a sidelong glance at Evan, composed and buried in his book. Annoyed, he looks away, and makes the mistake of turning his gaze up toward the mob of mosquitoes trapped between the tent and the rain fly.

“God, that buzzing doesn’t stop.”

“Kinda makes you think you need to pee, doesn’t it?” Evan flashes a grin.

“You’re evil. You’re actually evil.”

“I thought I was the saint in touch with nature.”

“You had your chance up until now. Now, no chance in hell.”

Evan returns to his reading material and Mark reluctantly follows suit, and the two strain their eyes as the sunlight slowly fails. Evan pulls out a mini lantern for a spell, but he can see Mark fidgeting out of the corner of his eye, and suspects he needs to provide some entertainment. Before long, he shuts off the light and gazes out at the emerging stars.

“John Muir was kind of a mystic, you know. Felt like the trees and the waterfalls spoke to him, in a way. Basically all the wilderness people were like that, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson up here when they made the Boundary Waters. It was a big fight to get it. You need some kinda conscience to make that movement happen, some deep faith. You gotta believe in what you see around you. But when I’m out here, just looking out at that sunset and that still lake…I get it.”

The darkness hides Mark’s scowl. Is this Evan taking a poke at his militant atheism, or just him trying to one-up him with his more appropriate reading choice, always-perfect Evan yet again made one with his environment in a way that Mark, for all his worldliness, cannot?

“When people start talking to me about their chats with trees,” he says, “well, we’ve got hospitals for that kind of thing.”

“You’re so joyless.”

Mark shrugs. “Just think the world can be a pretty place without throwing in gods under every little rock.”

“Maybe. But it’s more than that, you know? Out here, all those things we worry about every day just seem…small.”

“Matthew Four.”

Evan shakes his head, unsure what this means. Mark mumbles something about years of brainwashing and Evan doesn’t press it, knowing it will invoke Mark’s typically vulgar reaction to the Evangelical childhood his philandering parents tried to force upon him. Mark is relieved that Evan lets it go, but, knowing Evan, he’ll tuck this away, look it up when he gets back to technology, and subject him to conversation when he drives him home after hockey practice next week. Mark knows all of this; why, then, this need to murmur that verse? Instinct, he figures, and the knowledge that Evan will understand when he does look it up. Evan plays the humble game, but Mark knows that a god complex lurks beneath. Would they be friends otherwise?

Mark knows it because he lives it. He usually took advantage of his mother’s inability to instill discipline in the Sunday school class she taught at their Silver Bay church to play cell phone games with the closest things he had to friends there in the back of the classroom. But, overachiever he always is, he’d still memorized all the Bible verses they studied. He’d enjoyed Matthew Four because it was Jesus at his most badass: going straight into the wilderness and thrice thwarting the devil himself. He’d wanted to be tempted in that same way, to prove his worth. For Mark, the allure of wilderness isn’t in the promise of solitude: it is in its war with temptation, a war he must prove he can win. He always wins.

“I still say getting out of tents and into AC was a win for humanity,” he says. “How many freaking people are gonna die in Africa tonight cuz they get bit by the wrong mosquito, and here we are going into the woods to do it to get away from our first world problems.”

“You thought it was a fun idea to come here…”

Mark collects himself before responding. “I did. And I still do. But because I love to conquer shit and push myself, and this is an easy way to do it. And, like I said, gets me some alone time with my Evs.”

“Let’s save the kissing for later. But—how bout this. I just read this chapter on Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy’s like you, East Coast money, total boss, all about conquering the world. But he got it, he knew why we need to do this. When he went to Yosemite, he and Muir snuck off and just spent three nights in the wilderness, deep talks the whole time. Talk about living.”

“That’s awesome, I’ll give you that. Hell, I think anyone we elect President should have the balls to go out and do that. Still…goes to show you can love this without becoming one with the trees or whatever shit like that.”

“But Teddy loved being with Muir. He understood what he was talking about, even though he couldn’t stay. He had this…this feel for things beyond him.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“It’s…” Evan struggles. “It’s like this. Why do you always have to play the hardass, man? I get it and I love it when you do it. But sometimes…I just think you’re so sure that you think you know all there is to know that you just get a little…blind.”

Mark collects himself, again talks himself down from a vicious rebuttal. “Wouldn’t doubt it. You’re not the first person to tell me that. But wonder alone ain’t a gospel.”

“No, of course not. Not sure it needs to be. Still really hurts to lose it.”

“I believe that. And I need to piss.”

Evan cackles. “Have fun! Don’t let too many mosquitoes in when you get out…”

“Gonna leave the door open for a while just to spread the love.”

Evan purposefully kills the unwanted entries as Mark takes his leak. He can lead a friend to wonder, but he can’t force him to see it. It’s a pity; who knows what a god-driven Mark would be capable of? Instead he meanders, forces the issue when he sees fit and practically always wins when he does, but Evan senses no underlying strategy or logic, not even from the smartest kid he’s ever met, the closest thing to a kindred spirit he has. Is there one for anyone? Perhaps not; not entirely, at least. But there can at least be some guiding maps across the portages between these lakes. This is what he seeks in his releases; this is what Evan DeBleeker lives for. Contentment wafts over him, and he lets loose a sudden laugh: somewhere in here is his college admissions essay.

Mark returns, cursing up a storm. Evan joins in the silent slaughter of mosquitoes, but isn’t sure how to convey his sense of serendipity. He arranges a ragged old PeeWee State Tournament sweatshirt as a pillow and zips his way into his sleeping bag. Mark, however, stays sitting upright.

“Do you think it’s good to go chase the wonder on purpose like this?” he asks. “Or should we just let it come when it’ll come?”

Evan sinks further back into his sweatshirt-turned-pillow and closes his eyes. “I dunno that you can force it. You’ve at least gotta be open to it, though, right? And willing to wait, or find it in places where it’s not always easy. Travel does that for me, usually.”

“I get that. Seeing new stuff and all.”

“Yeah, that’s it. And…maybe places that bring out memories, too. Nostalgia.”

“Your dad?” Mark asks. He takes Evan’s silence as assent. “It’s tough for me to feel nostalgia much, honestly…maybe I just gotta build it where I am. Least I’ve got the people to do it with now.”

“Aw. Best way I’ve heard it.”

“Bro, you’re the best there is at breaking me down.” Evan once again stays silent, sure that Mark can read the necessary message from it. Satisfied, he begins to drift off. Sleep does not come as easily to Mark; it never does, his mind still racing along at breakneck pace, trying to make sense of his best friend’s simultaneous poise and lingering grief before his mind wanders off to his old girlfriend Emma, his parents’ failed love life, and whether he should play his senior year of high school hockey or run off to juniors once Evan, one year his senior, has graduated and he loses the only person he’s ever felt comfortable telling the full story of his family. In time the drone of the mosquitoes starts to wane, and the loon resumes its mournful lament. Mark shivers and huddles up in his sleeping bag, but the cool night air only invigorates him. The soft wind pouring through the tent door reminds him of the breaths of breeze through the windows in his father’s ridgetop fortress up on the North Shore of Lake Superior, a place that brings him no joy but still carries the air of some simpler time.

“You awake, Evs?”


“Shit, sorry.”

“I’m awake now I guess. Was having this dream, though…”

“What kind?”

“Don’t remember. It was good, though.”

“Damn. Sorry.”

“Nah. Dreams are fun, but they’re not real.”

“Not unless we make them real.”

“Anyone can, it’s you. Go get it, Marks.”

“I will. But man, let’s make sure we keep doing this. Once a summer, once a year, in our backyards or off in some other country when we’ve got the time and the cash…just me and you, getting out and escaping so we can see it all.”

“Just keep the search alive. Ya got yourself a deal, Marky,” Evan mumbles. Within seconds, he’s issuing the deep breaths of sleep. Chagrined, Mark settles back and looks toward the stars. He tries to pick out constellations, but his memory for such trifles isn’t what it should be. What a shame, he thinks. He’ll have to fix that.

Here’s the next piece in this series.


A Wave of Purity

Thanksgiving morning finds Evan driving alone up the shore of Lake Superior; alone, save for the urn of ashes riding shotgun. He’s had his license for three weeks now, and every acceleration in his mom’s old car still feels like a new burst of freedom, one mile closer to some reunion with an unseen destiny. Not that he can drive without some anxiety. His nerves rise when he crosses the patches where the road, coated by spray from this November gale, glistens in the car’s headlights. This all still has the feeling of a forbidden pleasure, one of which his dad at his best would have no doubt approved. Those moments were rare toward the end, and as depression consumed and defeated Evan’s once vibrant guide. For now, though, he can choose what he remembers of the man whose ashes ride along at his side. His old man will inspire him. The rush only grows as he swings on to a puddle-strewn gravel road out toward a point some ways north of town.

He didn’t want to spend this holiday with his mother’s family, not after what they’d said about his dad at Thanksgiving a year ago. He is too loyal to his father to blame him for leaving him behind, and the inundation of pity from the extended family was too much to endure. The visit over the summer had been even worse: didn’t his mother think Evan was letting himself go, they’d asked. He needed a haircut, he was far too young for that dating app, and he could probably use some friends who got him back in touch with that artistic side he’d used to show. This is what she got for letting her late husband turn him into a jock instead of making sure he followed in his cousins’ footsteps to choir and cello scholarships.

His mother, to her credit, stood up for his freedom to live as he pleased. She understood the adolescent impulses at play when he said he’d rather stay home for Thanksgiving, enjoy some personal time and feast with an accommodating friend’s family later in the day. He feels vaguely treacherous as he surveys the shoreline here, in full betrayal of her faith in his good decision-making. But somehow, he knows he’ll have no trouble drowning the guilt.

The stormwaters hammer away at a rocky beach. A few gawkers are on hand to admire the swells, but Evan makes sure to park as far from anyone as he can. He stops to admire himself in the mirror: yes, all this effort he’s put in to make himself look good over the past year has paid off. He smiles at himself, then reaches beneath the surfboard jutting through the middle of the car and fishes out the wetsuit at the foot of the passenger’s seat. It will be tight on him; he’s grown a few inches since he got it for Christmas two years ago. But he forces his way into it, an unwieldy dance between himself and Neoprene and the steering wheel at his knees. He’s in no rush, takes measured pride in his efforts. Every move is steady, deliberate, dripping with certainty. As it should be.

He pops the trunk and throws open his door only to have the wind nearly blow it shut in his face. He struggles out into the elements, makes his way to the back of the car, and scans the road: no, no one can see him. He pulls out the board, fights the wind as he closes the trunk, and picks out a path down to the rocks. A heat wave the previous week melted all the snow, but thin layers of ice carried in by the lake force him to fixate on each small step down to the shore. He’s seen big waves before, knows the danger they bring. But the steely grey sky and the bone-chilling cold reveal a malice he’d never known in the Great Lake before. If he picks the wrong waves, he’s most certainly dead.

Evan is not a veteran surfer. His résumé is limited to a series of vacations on the California coast, all of which started with noble intentions of conquering waves that swiftly dried out when his mediocre swimming skills ran up against the endless need to paddle outward. His mother dissuaded him at every chance she got, but his dad was always the trusting soul who knew his otherwise religiously risk-averse son ought to catch a wave when it rose up before him. As far as his mother knows, the surfboard is still gathering dust in the basement, a forgotten relic of happier days when they’d escape to San Onofre for spring break. But he’s put in his time to plan for this day. He’s researched this shoal meticulously, made three drives out this fall when he only had his permit, the closest thing his mother’s little saint has ever come to rule-breaking (whatever his worrying aunt may say). He chose each of those visits to survey the waves in prime conditions, to watch a couple of locals in action. But on none of those occasions had the winds approached this vicious pummeling power. His knees are quaking as he stares out at the roiling waters, his tremors in no way related to the cold.

His face clenches up into a grimace. If he can’t deliver now, when will he ever? Evan fixes the tether to his leg and marches out into the surf, lets the first wave break around him, gains some confidence that those that follow won’t bowl him over. He shuffles his way past the dashing rocks and then launches himself in, struggling to paddle out through the vicious breakers and toward a takeoff point that looms on the horizon. He labors intently, thankful for those long hours in the gym of late, his arms now just powerful enough to pull him out into the open lake.

The rest of the world ceases to exist. Evan, alone amid his unrelenting swells, all life reduced to himself and these crashing monsters that have swamped vessels sixty times the length of his little board. His mother, his father, his friends, his family: they all are gone now. His mind has no choice but to lock in on his singular purpose. He exhales, shuffles his body forward on the board, waits for a set that will suit him. He lets two passable swells roll by before he musters up the courage to clamber to his feet.

He lasts all of three seconds. He topples, battles back his panic to a level he can more or less manage. The waves come so much faster here than on the ocean, a relentless barrage of punches that land blow after blow. His mouthful of water may not be salty, but it chills him to the bone. He struggles back on to his board and forces himself back out, determined to ride one in with some measure of competence. His arms groan amid this unrelenting slog, though they’re afterthoughts compared to the protests in that ever-so-rational corner of his mind. A sudden howl of wind has the waves rising up as high as eighteen feet: true monsters of the lake, enough to challenge even the experts. He shouldn’t be here, yet here he is. He climbs to his feet for a second time, but the wave fells him immediately. Eternal seconds pass as he flounders in hapless misery. His ice bath plunges him into the depths of his fears, a cold, dark terror that instills a new wish for life within. He wrestles his way back on to the board and pushes back outward, ever outward.

Evan struggles out four more times, each effort deadening his queasy stomach. Fear becomes routine. He never lasts upright more than four seconds. This is far beyond his pay grade, far beyond a couple of halfhearted lessons from some stoned-out beach bums at Laguna Beach. Did they ever tempt death in the way he now does? If they did, they never said as much. Not that he’d blame them. This urge isn’t something he could explain, either.

The next wave has a different feel to him. It catches his eyes with a mysterious greenish tinge, something that marks it as different from the rest. This one, he knows, is the one. Eyes wide with delight, Evan surges with strength, picks out his line, and shoots down the tunnel in full control. He pulls back and rides the crest, and for the first time in his life nails a turn. He cruises the length of the wave for another five seconds before he crumples down to the surface of his board. He flounders, then resurfaces, pitching violently as the waves carry him in. His eyes are swimming, though not just from the spray: triumph and loss overwhelm him at once, sudden oneness with a sheer awesome force capable of destroying him. He’s done what he set out to do.

His moment of victory makes him complacent. The waves carry him in to toward a vicious reef, and he’s reduced to another sloppy and fearful paddle back to safer waters. For a fleeting second he imagines he can repeat that triumphant ride. No, no, he immediately tells himself: to even try would be to tempt a fate he does not dare imagine. This is enough.

By the time he coasts back into shore he has a small audience bending in the breeze to watch him. An older couple eyes him with worry and awe, and a mother with three preteen boys shepherds her flock away when she realizes this phantom emerging from the waves can’t be out of high school. She doesn’t want them getting any ideas. The old man politely applauds his performance, and Evan’s taught nerves burst into a wicked grin.

“You seem awful young,” offers his wife.

A cocky voice that Evan does not know responds for him. “Age doesn’t matter if you can ride like that.”

“No fear here!” the old man wheezes.

Evan shuts down his defensive impulse and chooses the right words. “Nah. It’s all fear, all the time. But that’s what makes it worth it.”

He smiles and picks his way back along the beach to the car, where he stashes away the surfboard and turns to face the wind. He lingers a few minutes, puts on a show of paying his respects to the beast he’s conquered. Once the couple has turned its backs on him, he collapses into the driver’s seat, hyperventilating as he cranks the car’s heat as high as it will go. He peels off the wetsuit, pulls back his hair, and closes his eyes so he can kill the terror and sear the triumph into his memory. That’s the only record of his ride: no pictures, no videos, no hurried accounts dashed off to friends. No one will ever need to know save himself.

He pats the urn next to him, feels a swell of something within, some god or primeval force surging through every thundering beat of his heart. In this moment Evan believes as much as he ever has, knows he must continue to find this force that pulses through him in these rare pinnacles of raw reality. What this belief entails or asks of him he’s not entirely sure, but that does nothing to diminish his certainty.

He knows he’s not alone in seeking it. The potheads try to tell him he can achieve this state with a few quick hits, but that seems like a cheap and safe shortcut; an escape, not a deliberate rush to the brink of fate. A friend who’s smoother with girls says sex is much the same; this, Evan can probably buy, the wonder of losing oneself in another in a rush of sensual ecstasy. He really should find himself a girlfriend so he can compare notes. But this? This is just him alone, or him made one with everything, most importantly that thing in the seat next to him that he can’t have back.

He pulls out his phone to call the friend who’s hosting him for dinner, his hands still trembling as he finds the number.

“Hey Evs,” the friend says, surprised by the call.

“Yeah. Listen, I’ll be a little late, just gotta…” he trails off, omits the details on how must head home to dry himself and replace the urn where it belongs.

“You okay?”

“I’m…” Evan pauses and returns his gaze to the waves. “I’m where I need to be.”

Here is the next piece in this series.


This is the seventh part of a fictional series that began here (though it was the first to appear in writing on this blog). It has been updated somewhat to remain consistent with the six posts that precede it within the arc of its story.

Evan’s legs, their movements all mechanical by this point, come to a halt. Since the last village it’s been absence and silence save for the reassuring footsteps behind him, the dull clank of a cooking pot against a water bottle in another backpack. Now, the silence is total.

“Don’t tell me you want to stop now,” he grumbles.

“You gave me the heavy pack again. What do you think I am, a goddamn Sherpa?”

“You really need to be more sensitive to the local people.”

“Their own damn fault for playing into that stereotype.” Evan sighs and stakes out the tent, while Mark slumps into a rocky seat with a groan and nurses his aching knee, wrestles off his hiking boots and rubs his fingers over his blossoming blisters. He only joined Evan here three days ago, and yet this lifelong athlete has never felt so physically drained. He sucks down some thin Himalayan air, toys with the fake jade Buddha trinket he’d bought at a market in Kathmandu. He’s never had much use for gods or faith since he’d first learned of his ever-so-pious parents’ affairs back in middle school, but now, as darkness falls and they hurry to make camp on a cleft in the side of a ridge, he could use some otherworldly strength, or at the very least some indifference to pain.

“Sorry I’m out of your favorite medicine,” says Evan as he assembles tent poles with deliberate smoothness.

Mark grumbles as he sits back up. “I brought ya something. Knew your stock would be gone by now, so…” He perks up and produces a bottle of bourbon from deep inside his pack.

“Now if you’d just mentioned you had that, I never would’ve given you shit about stopping.” Evan uncorks the bottle, throws back his head, and takes a deep swig. He sinks next to his friend on a barren patch of grass. After a month of trekking, he melts right into the rock, immune to any discomfort.

“You look like a straight-up mountain man,” Mark laughs. “What’s Bridget gonna say when she sees that beard?”

“I probably should shave it as soon as we’re back in civilization…or, at least, before we go up to her parents’ cabin next Saturday. When we get back to Kathmandu, well…I’m buying a ring.”

“Took you long enough.” Mark’s wide smile belies his sarcasm. “You’ve only been dating her since before we even met. I’d say she’s a saint for sticking with you for all these years, but nah, I know how much effort you’ve made to get all the little things right.”

“Not that I haven’t wavered some, done some stupid shit…”

“Shut it. You’re as steady as they come. Wish I had your discipline, instead of just being this fuckboy that I am.”

Evan snorts. “If that’s really what you want to call scoring some of the hottest girls in the Ivy League…”

Mark shrugs, concedes the point. “Great times, don’t get me wrong. But even if you made a mistake or two, you knew what you had to do to get her back. You weren’t going to lose her, not for all the lamas in Lhasa.”

“Hah. Or what’s left of them once the Chinese have had their way, anyway.”

“You always were a little bit of a hippie, and now you’re starting to look like one, too.”

“Sorry I care about people getting their culture totally bulldozed.”

“We’re all Nietzscheans now.”

“Easy there, Yale.”

“Nice try pretending you’re not a nerd, too.”

“Fine, explain it.”

“Means we can’t go two seconds without thinking about the politics of something. Without thinking of the power relations between us all and how it affects everything, oppressors and oppressed. No gods, no tradition…unless we can use them for power.”

“You’re good, even if you are just a chunk of raw red meat.”

“Just trying to save the world from all you self-obsessed lefties.”

“Says the kid who follows his lefty bud to the end of the earth.”

Mark peels off into laughter, too delirious for a deeper discourse on Ubermenschen. Evan grins and starts up his camp stove. He could go on if he wished, lecture Mark on the troubles in Tibet, but Mark probably knows all of this already, simply trolls him for his own pleasure. And why shouldn’t he? They’re two college grads on their final night on a Himalayan trek, all alone and powerless up here, and whether it’s conscious or not, he knows what Mark is driving at. Here, even the weightiest of world affairs seem small.

“When did you decide to buy the ring?” Mark asks. “All those monks droning about suffering make you want to give marriage a try?”

“Something like that. I’ve always known it was coming. And, corny, I know, but when I looked up and saw Everest, I just knew it was time. I’ve been building to that for years.”

“Ugh. But, I’m proud of you, I really am. Gonna have to take you and her to dinner once we’re back in Duluth.”

“You’ll have a couple weeks back home before you head back east, right?”

“I will,” Mark says. “Last time I’ll call it home, at least for a little while.”

“Any grand plans?”

“Nothing really…just hang with you and anyone else who’s in town. And visit my dad, I think. He’s getting a lot less mobile.”

“Still living in his lonely palace on top of that hill up the shore?”

“Of course.” Mark laughs as he pats the wall of his tent and sweeps his gaze across a valley touched by the last lingering tinges of dusk. “Lonely palace atop a hill, single after a life of sleeping around…I’m my father’s son, alright.”

“Father’s son,” Evan muses, reminding Mark why his friend took this trip in the first place. Evan’s father died before Mark ever met Evan, and his friends had pulled him through that adolescent grief. This trip was to be a long-delayed memorial for Evan’s late father, his chance to reckon with it all on his own, at least before Mark showed up at the end to lead him home.

Evan, however, has failed in his task. The ashes are still with him, and while he’s been a good Buddhist student throughout the trek, he feels no closer to nirvana than before. As he’s plodded along, his mind has spent far more time on wedding planning and the potential of the future than lingering in the past, least of all on a stolid Minnesota hockey dad who’d probably never recognize his scruffy globetrotting son, wouldn’t have known the first thing about finding noble truths or eightfold paths.

Evan has worried all along this journey was just a flight of vanity, and Mark has been all too willing to judge him for it. He’s a cultural tourist, and he knows it. Part of him begrudges Mark for clouding his spiritual seeking, but he’s needed someone to keep him grounded. And, by and large, Mark is right: he’ll head home refreshed and full of stories, but fundamentally unchanged. He’s been in these Nepalese passes for three weeks longer than Mark now, yet aside from his scruffy hair and beard, he’s displayed his singular talent for making a Himalayan trek no less stressful than a meander up the beach. If only the rest of the world knew the work it took to maintain this flawless act: simply Evan in his equanimity, ever the model that leaves even Mark slightly jealous.

It is a marvel, Mark thinks, how little of that there’s been since he moved to Minnesota nine years earlier. It survived all those seasons of agony and ecstasy as hockey teammates, four years as they went to college a thousand miles apart, two cross-country road trips, and a summer of hostel-hopping across Europe. Not that Evan hasn’t been on the receiving end of some of Mark’s more hotheaded lashes, and even Evan lapsed into bitter frustration after Mark lost their passports in Prague. Each has acknowledged his debt to the other before, but only here, clean on the opposite side of the globe, can Mark truly appreciate how lucky they are to have found each other. At times he’d worried Evan would dither too much and never buy his girlfriend that ring, but now that he’s declared his plans, a small part of him feels a pang: he won’t be his alone anymore.

“Yak steak?” Evan asks as he flips a slab of meat on his tiny griddle.

“I’ll pass,” Mark sighs, reaching for the trail mix and the bourbon at once.

“You should eat more than that.”

“Call it a simple diet. A purge. Getting in touch with those parts of your mind you don’t normally find. Your Buddhists would appreciate that, right?”

“Hardly, I’d think,” Evan frowns. “Just as long as you don’t push yourself to puke the way you did in practice sometimes. I’m not cleaning up your shit up here.”

Yes, Mark admits, he’s being reckless; perhaps it’s the thin air, or perhaps it’s all of these adult life questions weighing on his mind. But he’s no stranger to pushing the limits of his body.  He’s undertaken so many brutal workouts that they all blur together, though one rears up in his mind now: the run he’d gone on the day his mother and father had the last and greatest shouting match of their failing marriage. For once, instead of making a passive-aggressive racket in the background, he’d marched in between them, told them how horrible they were, and announced his departure. He ran until he vomited, ran until his legs screamed in agony, and yet he just kept running, running until he finally came out on a rocky ledge over Lake Superior, lost in the fog and his mind equally lost in that fog. He collapsed in a heap, jerked off to dull his senses, and solemnly swore he’d never again stay silent when he had something to say. He’d freed himself.

When his mother, blubbering and incoherent, finally found him on the side of the road at dusk, he’d shrugged and said he’d done what he’d needed to do. She’d grounded him, but he didn’t care. His father, as usual, just ignored his antics, and he was fine with that, too. That purge has carried him through ever since, not that there aren’t peaks and valleys nearly every day. But he’s never forgotten his mission, and now he’s joined Evan here at the tail end of his journey to the roof of the world, here where the towering peaks make laughingstocks of those old shoreline bluffs he came to know in his childhood pursuits. Their wildness seems intimate when set against these infinite heights, heights he’s delighted in conquering but that will never be home. Even the eternal striver knows his place.

“You know what I’ve missed the most, being out here? The water. I need the water,” says Mark.

“You always say you need all these things, man. I’m not really Buddhist, but if I can take something away from all these monasteries, it’s that ability to release yourself, achieve that indifferent state.”

“Easy for you to say, you’ve got it all lined up so smoothly. I’m just…drifting.”

“The kid who says he needs the water is drifting. Maybe what you’re looking for is right beneath you.”

“Or maybe I’m just doomed to wander.”

“You sound dark, Marky.”

“Look up, look around you, Evs…it’s all darkness. And us, just looking for little moments of light here in the middle of it all.”

“There you go again.”

“I’ve always been a bit…haunted. Not that you haven’t, I guess. But some things linger.”

Evan nods, but turns away from his old friend and searches the gathering darkness for an adequate response. It doesn’t come. Through all their time together he’s always looked up to Mark as the more brilliant half of the pair, the restless achiever who’d gone to Yale, always an object of mild awe. But some part of him has always known he’s the more stable one, and this point of pride now seems like something he’s failed to share, some secret he could have imparted. But he has no such power, and that makes him somehow inadequate. Mark’s demons play out every time he goes home, while his had the convenience, the closure of a death that made the what ifs far more speculative.

“I came to join you to try to find that glimmer,” says Mark. “And I did, when I tracked you down up at Tengboche, and I’m getting there tonight…but it seems like it gets harder and harder every year.”

“We’re not kids anymore,” Evan shrugs. “We don’t get that rush every time we do something new now. We’ve settled on our vices”—he hoists up the bourbon bottle—“and we know we can’t do too much else. I don’t know that it’s a loss. You focus in on what really does make you happy…nah, not what makes you happy, not exactly. What makes you live in line with the life you believe in. That slow, satisfied burn instead of the occasional rush.”

“Guess those monks taught you something useful.” Mark takes a long slug from the bottle and grits his teeth in relish. “Just as long as I can still get those rushes sometimes. Wouldn’t trade those for the world.”

“Course,” says Evan. “There are times when it only makes sense to grab them. Just don’t force it when it’s not there.”

“Fair enough.” Mark hands Evan the bourbon and moves from one rocky seat to another in a hopeless search for comfort. “Just need to figure out when those moments are…it’s stupid. I’ve put in all this time and effort, Yale degree, did everything the way we’re supposed to…and I don’t regret any of it, it’s set me up better than any other way could have. But in the end, it just comes down to instincts. Knowing when to make a move.”

Evan stops mid-drink, and a dawning look plays across his face. “Right. Yeah.” He stares into the darkness at nothing, and Mark tracks his gaze intently. Evan pitches the bottle back to Mark, reaches into his pack, and pulls out a small bag. He wanders over to the edge of the cliff, opens it, takes a handful of ashes, and sticks his closed fist out over the chasm before him. He’s come to this point four times on this trip already, and each time he’s pulled his hand back. Is it really right, to scatter his father so far from anything he knew, to leave what little trace he has left in some unnamed gorge he’ll never see again?

“Do it,” Mark orders him. “Let go.”

Evan turns his hand over and slowly lets the ashes sift out from between his fingers. When half his burden is gone, he throws his hand open and casts the rest down into the abyss. It is done. He’s not sure he feels any better for completing the task; maybe he doesn’t completely believe what he just told Mark, that this lack of feeling is in some way natural. But it is done now, and for the first time on his journey, he feels tired. He slinks back to his friend’s side and blinks away the gathering tears.

“More booze?”

“Nah…not now. Just water.”

Mark smiles. “Always the water.” He fishes a bottle out of his pack. “Wash it down, clear it out, whatever you need to do. You’ve got needs, too.”

“Glad I’ve got you and Bridget in my life to remind me of that.”

“How does it feel? You get what you wanted?”

Evan shrugs. “I was hoping for closure. But now I realize that it never really happens. And that’s okay.”

This collection continues here.

On and Off

A sudden, cold terror grips him: he’s lost her. He said he’d stay by her side, be there in case anyone dared challenge her, give her an escape if this ball became intolerable. Of course she hadn’t asked him to; that was never her style.

Perhaps he presumes too much? Is he merely the fawning lap dog? She could have dumped him in the river months ago if he hadn’t piqued her interest somehow. No, she expects him to stay, probably even expects him to come find her now that she’s ditched the ball.

Merely a toy, then? He’s heard the line from her, time and time again: ‘the world is my plaything.’ But he’s seen her at her weakest, stumbled through some of her old college diaries in the bowels of a dresser drawer on that one lucky night when she let him in. He knows there are questions beneath, or at least there once were, before her name became the talk of that arena where she spends her frenetic days.

He chances one of the upper galleries of the hall, hoping his haste conveys none of his panic. She must know every back room of this place by now, and she no doubt knows people who could spirit her away, give her cover for days or even weeks. But is there anyone she trusts, any confidante she’d let see her soft side? He doubts it. She is a loner. He can find her, coax her back down.

He runs up one staircase, stumbles up the next, yells her name once he’s sure no one else at the party might hear. The reply comes reluctantly, resigned; she knew she couldn’t hide for long.

“What are you doing up here?” he bellows as he bursts through a door. He stops in awe.

“It’s a phenomenal view, isn’t it?”

He surveys the city as it unfolds beyond this topmost balcony to the hall: a city of lights robed in golden haze, its restless din dulled into a murmuring stream of life, while the river itself flows silently past, dark as the night except where it mirrors the gleaming towers on the opposite bank.


“Would you believe me if I told you I just want to jump on the next flight out of here? Forget it all?”

“But that’s ridiculous. You’ve got them all eating out of your hands, with how much you do to make things right. You work harder than anyone to pull it all off, and they know it. This city is yours.”

“Maybe too much mine to ever properly share it.”

“You’ve always been the queen of mystery.” He chances a knowing grin, but she shakes him off with a toss of her head.

“You look gorgeous, you know.”

She thanks him out of courtesy, suppresses her real thoughts: Lord, she tries, yet every new diamond or sequin only raises the stakes the next time, feeds the insatiable beast. It’s vain of her, of course: vanity trapped in her body, the only idol left for worship in this age beyond God. Her dear grandfather always said she should have been a nun, but even his faith would have crumbled if he could see what she had become: this woman of the world, born to rule.

“Want to just go for a get a drink, you and I? Leave all the intrigue behind?” He offers her an arm, his pained overtures suddenly channeling the gallantry she’d long wished he might someday muster.

“No, I think I’ll just walk by myself for a moment.”

She is cruel. He’s been good to her; he shares her humor, her commitment, and he’d sheepishly let her take him home earlier that spring. But he lacks her iron resolve, too easily lapses into blithe cynicism, any real depth concealed beneath a protective veil. He plays the same game, but that alone is enough for him, and she will always crave more. No apologies: she strides out past him, wishing this imposing façade could collapse upon the tumult within and smother it into submission.

Down a side staircase, out the kitchen entrance: she knows how to slip out of the spotlight, ever a talent she needs when wheedling the power brokers of this town into the belief that they call the shots. But it’s her, all her. Or so she tells herself, for how else can she keep the faith?

It’s a crisp night; perhaps she should be cold in this dress, but she has no mind for anything outward. She eases herself along the cobblestones, lets them turn her heels ever so slightly before she catches each step, wobbles her way toward the promenade along the river. Late-night revelry carries on all about, though no one knows her when she comes down from her rarified air. Or perhaps they do; she’s spent too much time up in that world, and now she shuts them out without a second thought. She went into politics to be their champion. And she has been, secretly tipping the agenda where she can. But it’s been too long. She’s lost touch. She said she’d never let this happen. But the zeal is gone, and the revolution has left her behind.

She could fix that now, if she so desired. But no. Somehow, this is all alright. She was never here to blow up the world; she merely came to shepherd her flock along. Perhaps her grandfather was on to something after all. She repeats the mantra she uses to train her will: the ceaseless refrain, stashed away in her brain and yet impossible to find when she truly needs it, when it might blast through her lingering doubts and save her from the thousand little deaths she dies every day. Turn it on, turn it off. Every day that light detached manner, that effortless zeal for the mundane tasks at hand, all the while biding; biding her time for the battles she chooses that will actually give it all some meaning.

Turn it on, turn it off. Turn it on, turn it off.

She stops along the bridge and gazes at the water, mesmerized; perhaps this is where she should see wonder in simplicity, fall into the gentle rhythms that can guide her along into a meditative bliss that eases these demons to bed. But no; not here, not now. She is still on edge, that drive outward in full control, and deep inside her she knows that she cannot separate those demons from the hunger that has made her what she is, this guardian of a city, this lady of her realm. She cannot turn it off.

She catches her reflection in the window of an idling taxi and wraps her shawl tighter around her dress. He does not lie: she really does look that good. But it’s all an illusion, is it not? She’s built it up for too long; illusion has slowly leeched into reality, and now she cannot separate the two. She can wonder at it all, but only with a skeptical eye, forever aware that her moment here will never last. At its best it swells in a surge of bravado, but it seems reckless to cling to this juvenile urge to take command. If mere youthful beauty is all she has, what will endure when this all fades away? She’s not young anymore.

Perhaps it’s time to move on. She’s given this place all she has, and it has taken that and more from her. If the wonder is dead, what is left? Is her god really some vague sense of awe, some raw emotion with nothing to ground it but her own cynical eye?

Best to let it surge again, to blink back that tired eye and turn it back on. She has a party to return to, a city to rule, a man to tease as he pursues her deep into the night. It has all come in to focus because she has turned it off, unwittingly: this little step back out into the night, all the wilderness she needs.

It doesn’t happen when she wills it. No, it happens only when it comes to consume her life so fully that she has no other choice. Submission, she supposes: for all her struggles for control, she is still a slave to these currents that bear her along. Perhaps all she can do is ride them, feeble as that may seem. Become one with the water, or some such cliché.

“I would have jumped by now if I were you.”

She starts in shock. A woman leers at her; a grotesque, doddering crone who most likely climbed down from the eve of some Gothic church. But she can see how close she’s come to the rail, how fixated she must seem, and she lets loose a manic laugh.

“I’m afraid I drowned myself years ago,” she says. “And I don’t regret it one bit.”

Her gargoyle squints at her and nods before shuffling onward along the bridge. Her smile blossoms outward: this woman, too, is one of her children, one of her fellow lost souls who can’t quite cooperate with all this order she tries to impose. A flaw in the plan? No, just a reminder of how much life there is in the darkness, even when it all goes off. These are her people down in here, just as much as she is one with her erstwhile lover back at the ball, the closest she has to a kindred spirit. Perhaps if he could join her down here, he’d understand. It would be a risk to ask it of him. But these shifts are too much to handle alone.

Turn it on, turn it off. Turn it on, turn it off.

She wakes early the next morning, has every intention to slip away while he stays sprawled among the sheets. But this time, she stays. Is a false love better than none at all? For now, she supposes, it will have to do. There is still some hope for him. She needs just one thing: someone else who can embrace the totality of these swells. Her faith wavers. But here, and only here, can it become something beyond that inane cycle of ons and offs and infuse it with a sense of direction. The time will come. For now, her city beckons.

“Come on,” she coaxes, shaking him awake.

“Lay off,” he grumbles as he flops over on to his chest and buries himself in a pillow. She laughs in delight, pulls him upright, and throws aside a curtain to let in the morning sun.

“Not quite as good as your balcony,” he muses, staring out at the dingy apartment across the street.

“But just as much ours.”

“You off to wander alone again?”

“I’m certainly going to wander. Whether I’m alone is up to you.”

La Grande Bellezza

What is beauty? Is it mere aesthetics, captured simply by wealthy people drifting about and enjoying all their lifestyle has to offer? Does art alone draw people toward higher purpose? Or is beauty representative of something else, something beyond the mundane world we see around us that gives it all a higher purpose? These are the questions that underlie Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty (La grande belezza), the winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

The Great Beauty is visually stunning from start to finish, without a wasted frame. The film is a love affair with a city, a dreamlike vision that sets Rome on a pedestal. The real Rome, visitors can attest, is impressive but not nearly as impeccable and clean. And yet it all works, and the flood of color toys with nostalgia, and even the critiques are those of one who knows it dearly. At one point, the protagonist notes that only tourists can see Rome with fresh eyes, something all to resonant for a kid who went to Rome once, but only for a day; one beautifully jam-packed day under a radiant July sun in which I was led about by an exceptionally attractive tour guide.

The film follows Jep Gambardella, a writer who wrote one great book forty years prior and has been resting on his laurels ever since. He lives in Dionysian opulence, stumbling from party to party dancing with beautiful people and rocking one superb suit after another. He arches his eyebrows at all the absurdity around him, at times even blasts the emptiness of his friends in Roman high society, but he is beholden to his life of excess, and resumes the revelry every night. He’s made himself the king of Rome, but as he ages, his throne seems increasingly lonely.

The Great Beauty is absolutely vicious in its takedown of Jep’s fellow travelers. In the most enjoyable scene, Jep makes short work of a vacuous performance artist, an all too accurate skewering of clueless contemporary art.  He also unleashes a vicious takedown of the communist socialite whose “sacrifices” for her family are nothing more than self-serving lies: she is no better than any of these jaded souls partying the night away. At times these Roman elites are downright sad, as in the suicidal mania of Andrea and the young girl forced by her parents to smear paint about for the amusement of the crowd. And there’s the cardinal in line for the papacy, who prefers quoting his recipe book to scripture. Only the dwarf publisher, consigned to an absurd body, comes across as someone who has genuinely earned her high society stature.

By the end, though, a few figures start to poke out above the bitter takedowns. News of an old lover’s death starts to stir a few memories, and ever-dangerous nostalgia makes its move. Jep’s “friend” Romano, a hapless writer there mostly as an object of scorn, suddenly decides to leave Rome and head back to his anonymous hometown. For the first time, Jep’s reaction to an event goes beyond mild bemusement: suddenly, his world faces disruption. And then there is the matter of the Santa Maria, the Mother Teresa figure who comes to visit Rome at the end of the film. She, too, is a hyperbolic caricature, but her ascetic life is about the only one in the film that witnesses any greater beauty. At the end, she climbs a stair to an altar on her knees and looks up in pure wonder, and suddenly one starts to wonder if sleeping on cardboard and serving the Malian poor for 22 hours a day at age 104 is indeed the road to enlightenment.

Santa Maria stiffs Jep when he tries to interview her, instead settling for a night on his floor and some festivities with her flock of flamingoes before she asks the same damn question that everyone else asks him: why didn’t he write another book?  Because he couldn’t find the great beauty, he replies, and Santa Maria orders him to remember his roots. Jep flashes back to a night on the beach with the girl who got away. She flashes her breasts at him, but what lingers is the tantalizing, mysterious look on her face. The wonder returns, Jep finds his beauty, and he can begin to write again.

The epiphany of beauty leaves one question unresolved: is Jep’s nostalgia for a cute girl on the same level as the crawling Santa Maria, the mere fact of wonder enough to give life meaning? Are all these Roman partiers saved if they can simply recall some moment of past beauty that gives them pause? Or is there still a moral order beyond this relativist ability to marvel? My vote, to no one’s surprise, is with the latter: those fleeting moments of great beauty are windows unto eternity, but they are not themselves eternity. Instead, they fuel the mind, and from there, the author must write his own story, remembering his roots and placing his narrative within the thousands of others that float past it down the streets of Rome or along the Tiber.

Sorrentino doesn’t show us whether or not Jep understands this, but at least he has some chance. It’s no coincidence that the hauntingly magnificent closing theme is named “Beatitude,” as it brings together the faith that has sustained Rome and opens the door to transcendence. It lilts down the Tiber and lingers for days beyond, and encapsulates the human core of Rome: at times tortured, burdened with the history of Western civilization in all its contradictions, but capable of stunning beauty, both in the facades it puts up and in the details deeper inside. Both the city and the man are along the road to truth, and while they may not get there, they at least have some notion of how to find their way.