Dangerous Books for Men
Sometimes I worry about my seven-year-old not being an avid reader, seeming content to watch TV and films and otherwise entertain himself without dipping into literature of his own volition. I have even gone so far as to buy Pokémon cards and books, hoping that his inexplicable interest in this vile cult would get him to read more. (It actually has.) Fortunately, boys are curious about certain things, such as volcanos, supernovas, war, geysers, sharks, snakes, man-eating animals, glaciers, polar regions, and, for some reason, penguins. So I was delighted to discover The Dangerous Book for Boys, a book by two Brit bros, Conn Iqqulden and Hal Iqqulden.
Nicely retro in its swashbuckling design, this book is a treasury of all things that separate the boys from the girls, theoretically, such as knot-tying, battles, table soccer, treacherous mountains, rockets, secret code, dangerous insects, tree houses, flags, and pennants. Well, I admit it, I partly bought it for myself. In any case, it's working. He's reading it!
The Dangerous Book for Boys is such a big hit that it inspired a spin off, The Daring Book for Girls, which to my dismay has no chapters on garter belts or Nabokov, and a satire, The Dangerous Book for Dogs. Ha, ha, by the way.
But this did get me thinking. It got me in touch with some interests I may have neglected. Well, not all that much. I actually have a secret hobby of picking up books that are not exactly fashionable but which offer a certain adventurous perspective. So let me name a few of them.
To most people, Halliburton means that evil corporation once run by Dick Cheney that represents the worst side of the military industrial complex; the company responsible for running the Iraq oil industry (into the ground), for the "clean-up" after Hurricane Katrina, and the company that made the study responsible for the privatization of war under the neo-cons, and the rise of such mercenary operators as Blackwater.
Well, to me, the number-one Halliburton will always be Richard Halliburton (1900-1939), an extraordinary character who was perhaps the most popular adventure writer of the 20th century. After Lawrenceville and Princeton, the young Halliburton decided that instead of taking a job he would swim the length of the Panama Canal. For starters. Halliburton decided that he wasn't meant for a desk job and that traveling to the world's most exotic spots was the life for him, and he managed to make a living at it through a series of best-selling books and the lecture circuit.
Halliburton's first volume, The Royal Road to Romance (1925), finds our hero climbing the Matterhorn out of season, getting arrested for photographing the guns and fortifications at Gibraltar, sneaking onto the grounds of the Taj Mahal after-hours to take a midnight dip, and climbing the Great Pyramid of Cheops, among other memorable jaunts.
In The Glorious Adventure (1927) the impetuous Halliburton first climbs Mount Olympus looking for gods and finds only shepherds; he then follows more or less the route of Odysseus across the Mediterranean. He swims the Hellespont, and visits Troy, Tunis, Malta, Stromboli, Sicily, and various other Mediterranean spots, trying to retrace Homer's legendary itinerary, although frequently with picnic basket and champagne bucket.
In New Worlds to Conquer (1929) our Ivy League hero heads down to Central and South America, diving to the bottom of the Mayan Well of Death in search of skulls, swimming the Panama Canal and wandering around Devil's Island.
In The Flying Carpet (1932) Halliburton goes modern, picking up a biplane and a pilot (also possibly bi) and flying around Europe and the Middle East, visiting Morocco, Algeria, the Sahara, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and then India, Nepal, and Thailand (still Siam then), and winding up with the headhunters, the proverbial wild men of Borneo. In Tehran Halliburton runs into another American adventurer, William McGovern, author of To Lhasa in Disguise, and they decide it would be most amusing to be incarcerated in a Persian jail. Through the Shah they arrange to be imprisoned "without favor," except not having their heads shaved and being pardoned "when we felt sufficiently punished," and they hob-nob with the cream of society, which happens to be imprisoned by the dictator.
In Seven League Boots (1935) Halliburton duplicates the feat of Hannibal, crossing the Alps on an elephant. He visits the killer of the the Czar and his family on his deathbed and learns the truth of the Romanoff's demise, and in the Caucuses he finds the oldest man in the world who turns out to be an alcoholic. (He took to drink in 1803, he claims!) Then he becomes the first non-Muslim to make the hajj to Mecca and live to tell about it.
It's all great stuff. Not only would these adventures be impossible to duplicate today, for reasons of politics, as well as the extinction of cultures, habitat, and the wonders of the world, but these books are written very much under the pressure of the white man's burden, with an attitude and vernacular as extinct as the Tasmanian Wolf. For the most part the antique violations of political correctness are simply amusing. That's the way it was, and through their bred-to-rule eyes we get a very realistic picture of the way things work, even if Halliburton's accomplishments are mostly staged stunts. Occasionally one also gets a hint that there is more to this adventurer than meets the eye. He seems to have wanted to escape the confines of western society for reasons that are never addressed explicitly. Halliburton, it seems, is one of nature's bachelors, and no doubt he frequently found strange cultures more hospitable to his inclinations than the one he grew up in. (It was rumored that among Halliburton's closest intimates was the flamboyant silent screen star and lifelong bachelor Ramon Novarro.)
Halliburton's disappearance was as spectacular as his appearance. In March 1939 he set sail in a Chinese junk from Hong Kong, headed for San Francisco, ignoring warnings of an impending typhoon. In the midst of the typhoon the junk was spotted by an ocean liner, the S.S. President Coolidge, to which it managed to get off a wire of his last words: "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here instead of me."
Now that's the way to go. Live fast, die young, and have your good-looking corpse eaten by the fish. That kind of adventure is simply no longer available. Even for employees of today's Halliburton and other corporate adventurers. Get drunk and shoot up some innocent civilians today and you're likely to wind up with immunity. It's even harder to see the inside of a Middle-Eastern prison, unless you're hired to waterboard the wogs.
Another of my favorite adventure reads is a book found in a "free" pile in an antique store: Congo Kitabu (Random House, 1964) by Jean-Pierre Hallet. Jean-Pierre was the son of the Belgian painter Andre Hallet, who specialized in African scenes, and he was brought up in the Belgian Congo. He entered the service of the Belgian government and worked as an administrator until the Congo became independent in 1960. He lived among the Efe pygmies, by whom he was officially initiated into the tribe (quite an honor for a man of 6'5"), and he taught them to farm. He was also initiated into the Masai, after killing a lion with a spear.
Hallet loved Africa and Africans, both human and animal, and he devoted his life to helping them. During a famine Hallet took to dynamite fishing in Lake Tanganyika, and he provided tons of fish to feed starving pygmies, before he blew his right arm off when a stick of dynamite exploded prematurely. After that incident he drove himself 200 miles to a hospital on a treacherous dirt road.
During his years in Africa Hallet saved many animals that would have died otherwise, and he accumulated one of the greatest collections of African art. Hallet died in 2004 of leukemia at the age of 76, and his collection was auctioned on behalf of the Pygmy Fund.
Congo Kitabu is a great true-life adventure, but it is also one of the best books in explaining the state of colonial Africa at the time of Independence. There's an amazing chapter on the events of 1960, when Belgium left the Congo—thousands of people running through the streets chanting "Dependence! Dependence!", a perfect expression of the cruel ironies that would follow. I also wholeheartedly recommend Hallet's other two books: Animal Kitabu (Random House, 1967) and Pygmy Kitabu (Random House, 1973). Hallet was enchanted by the pygmies. When he first encountered them the other tribes, such as the Hutu and Tutsi, famous for the Rwandan genocide that took place later, did not even regard them as humans, but Hallet explains how this oldest line of homo sapiens has much to teach its taller brothers.
All of this armchair adventure is bound to make a guy thirsty, so that's when I pull out my leather-bound copy of The Gentleman's Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask (Crown, 1946). Delightfully written by Charles H. Baker, Jr., this "exotic drinking book" is ostensibly a collection of cocktail recipes from the definitive and original to the recherché and occult. Here you will learn to make such concoctions as the Antrim Cocktail, "found in the quaint little Overseas Club in Zamboanga on the Island of Mindanao"; Ernest Hemingway's Reviver; the Sahara Glowing Heart Cocktail "from the hands of one Abdullah, an Arab Muslim wizard back of mahogany at the Mena House Bar, near the pyramids of Ghizeh"; the Mexican Firing Squad Special from La Cucaracha Bar, Mexico City, 1937; the World Famous Quarantine Cocktail, "No. 1, favorite in Manila"; and The Swiss Yodeler, from Villa d'Este, Lake Como.
There are many dozens of recipes in this book, but the most intoxicating thing about it is the spirit in which it was written. Surely it was composed under the proximate influence of intoxicants; but it never crosses the line into decadence, always upholding the convivial nature of imbibing while decrying loutish behaviour: "We prefer firmly to go on record that we find scant humour in dipsomania, or in potted gentlemen who in their cups beat wives, or in horny-handed toilers of any class who fling their weekly pay chits onto the public mahogany while tearful mates and hungry infant mouths await by a cold hearth."
No, it's civilization we're talking about, boys. Any civilization worth having is bound to entail some adventure. Sure, it's dangerous sometimes, but are we not men?