Alexander Frater on ‘Next Exit Magic Kingdom’

Travel writers of my generation, on the rare occasions when our paths happened to cross, used to express concern at the lack of youthful talent lining up behind. ‘Where,’ we old sweats would cry, ‘are all the new Rabans, Therouxs, Thubrons, Chatwins, Morrises and so on?’ As the twentieth century drew to a close it was starting to seem as if a minor, but wonderfully vibrant, byway of English literature (boasting some of the best writing in the language) might be facing closure. (My own view was that the best people had chosen to follow Michael Palin into travel TV.) But then one day in 1997 the Literary Editor of the Observer wandered over to the Travel Desk (where I sat) with a book entitled ‘The Oatmeal Ark’ by an author named Rory MacLean.

‘Young Canadian,’ he said, ‘now resident in the UK. His first book, ‘Stalin’s Nose’, did rather well. This is the sequel. Care to glance through it? And, if it’s any good, do me a thousand words?’

It turned out to be so startlingly good (‘One of the most original and innovative travel books for years,’ said my review) that I knew the future of the travel genre -– for another generation at least — lay in safe hands.

Now I’ve been asked for an introduction to ‘Next Exit Magic Kingdom’, his fourth book, which epitomises a number of MacLean characteristics –- the first being his absolute unpredictability. When the story opens he is about to leave for Germany to carry out research for a major book. (His odyssey will include matters as arcane as following old trade routes.) He has done his reading, acquired his permissions, alerted key figures to be met along the way, made all his calls, sent countless e-mails. But then one morning, after a series of minor, utterly random incidents at home in Dorset (ads glimpsed in a newspaper, a chat with a friend on the phone) he decides to go to Florida instead.

The next day.

So, a mere twenty four hours after the idea first entered his head, he turns up at Gatwick, boards a plane and flies off. Just like that. Auf wiedersehn, Germany.

To someone like me – and, I suspect, most of my contemporaries -– this is simply crazy. Preparations for any serious literary journey are, traditionally, intricate and time-consuming; certain procedures must be followed. But MacLean touched down at Orlando without even a map in his knapsack. At the airport, of course, he bought one, then threw a pencil at it.

It left a small tear indicating he should go north.

Maclean is a passionate traveller. There is, as he sets out for Florida, a sense of the heart beating faster, the eyesight growing keener, the mind more fully engaged. It is our good fortune that he also chooses to write about where he goes, and do so supremely well. He has a nose for a story but keeps moving it along, gives it a strong narrative flow; this book is actually an old-fashioned page turner: what happens next? His dialogue, crisp and assured, is employed with skill. He understands the importance of humour, tells good jokes and plants them cunningly (they detonate throughout the text like tiny hand grenades).

Another Maclean characteristic, it soon becomes plain, is a lightning-conductor ability to attract luck. It struck him, like small bolts of beneficence, next day when a mob of hospitable, ghost-savvy spiritualists urged him to stay a while. Maclean is a writer to whom a schedule means nothing; if a place interests him he hangs around, joins in, gets involved and, when he finally took his leave, the spiritualists were sad to see him go.

Yet another singularity is a propensity for springing surprises -– both on his readers and people he meets on the road. For example, arriving in Palatka he discovers a 10,000-strong population so dedicated to crime that, the previous year, police arrested 2,000 of them. Yet, rather than hightailing it out of there, Maclean makes for police headquarters and two heavily-armed female officers ensconced behind bullet proof glass. ‘I’m looking for the best person in town,’ he tells them. ‘Who’s Palatka’s Good Samaritan?’ Instead of being busted for wasting police time he is directed to a black woman named Virginia Blue. She runs the county’s only homeless shelter –- or ‘caring center’ — and takes a shine to Maclean. He stays and bakes angel food cakes, serves the dozens of vagrants who turn up for dinner, helps around the house, chauffeurs her when she delivers soup and sandwiches to a nearby community, devotes an entire chapter to her; we become as involved with this simple, funny, selfless, utterly engaging lady as he does, so news of her fate is almost as shocking to us as it must have been to him. Yet it’s delivered, literally, as a throwaway postscript, the brutal brevity of which serves only to double its impact.

By choice it’s a disjointed journey, made without any particular plan or pattern, but then that’s part of the point. MacLean is looking at the role chance plays in our lives, as well as proving that you don’t have to go somewhere remote and exotic to write a thoroughly engrossing travel book. He may visit a place because he likes the name –- who could resist a potato-growing dorp called Spuds? — or because someone has told him interesting things about it. He visits the Garden of Eden (a claim made due to the presence of rare gopherwood — from which the Ark was built –- growing on the east bank of the Apalachicola river), later meets some mermaids (young women who hold their breath for two and a half minutes under water, don tails and swim around a tank for the edification of the public.) But despite the inherent silliness of these destinations, the dignity Maclean accords their proponents carries the story along; you have to keep reading. He gets himself attached to a Miami TV news crew working on a story about a marauding alligator, stays in a monastery with some charming, unusually worldly monks, and endures the full horror of Disney World.

His Floridians are a rum lot. We hear of the Mars family (inventors of the Mars Bar) said to be worth $4 billion, of crack babies born alive yet weighing less than a pound, of a man who sustained head injuries after being clubbed by the breasts of a stripper (size 69 HH) in a Clearwater topless bar, of a four-times murderer named Douglas Buchanan who grew enraged when his dawdling executioners took their time. He shouted -– and these were his last words — ‘Get this ride started! I’m ready to go.’

MacLean once dropped me a note in which he mentioned his ‘passion for the genre’. Many top travel writers seem to feel the genre somehow lacks gravity and stature, that fiction is the only suitable path for anyone wishing to make a name; travel writing is situated (as it were) below the salt –- or even, in the eyes of some, under the table. (The irony is that many of those who felt impelled to make the switch from travel to novels will be remembered for the former, not the latter.) But Maclean continues doing what he does so well, setting off on the kind of journeys that -– like ‘Stalin’s Nose’, ‘The Oatmeal Ar’k and his utterly absorbing hippie trail adventure ‘Magic Bus’ -– lift our spirits and quicken our senses.

Within these pages are hidden plenty more of the characteristics I mentioned earlier; I urge you to discover them for yourselves. His is a world which — despite the state we’ve got it into — remains a place of absorbing interest and variety, and his enthusiasm for it is such that, with pen and notebook at the ready, he must get out there and see every last bit of it.