Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey'

'No-Man's Lands'

A Long Story

Of that versatile man, O Muse, tell me the story, how he wandered both long and far after sacking the city of holy Troy. Many were the towns he saw and many the men whose minds he knew, and many were the woes his stout heart suffered at sea as he fought to return alive with living comrades. Them he could not save, though much he longed to, for through their own thoughtless greed they died - blind fools who slaughtered the Sun's own cattle, Hyperion's herd, for food, and so by him were kept from returning. Of all these things, O goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.

Odyssey, Book I.

THINGS GO WRONG, PLANS FAIL, fate makes sport of our best intentions. We say one thing and do another; nothing turns out as we expect. It's an unpredictable life, and we comfort ourselves by blaming greater powers: "If you want to make God laugh," we say, "tell him your plans," and most modern westerners can be grateful to at least have only the one God whose laughter concerns us. Think, though, of the ancient Greeks. The Greeks had an entire pantheon of gods; the Greeks had gods like we have siblings, cousins, in-laws - and just as busy, just as nosy, too. So the ancient Greeks knew their plans could elicit laughter - and expect trouble - from not just one source but a dozen. That was the gods' favorite thing, interfering with people's plans. Or more accurately, helping people interfere with their own.

It still is, I think. So not long ago, when I briefly took to making plans, I should have been listening for that laughter. You could say I went looking for it. It began after all with a public promise - which the gods made sure I broke, almost instantly. Afterwards came a headlong journey, filled with discovery, wonder, and adventure, which seems like their kind of joke too - at least, they've been using it for a while. In the end, of course, it's a long story. You can start almost anywhere.

So start with James Joyce.

ON JUNE 15, 2001, I swore, out loud and on the radio, that I would never, ever read Ulysses.

Joyce's Ulyssesis regularly crowned the most important novel of the twentieth century. Nearly eight hundred pages long, filled with thousand-word stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences, classical references, and asides in various languages, Ulysses(the Romanized name, of course, of the Greek hero Odysseus) is considered the birth of modern literature. A modern retelling of the ten years of adventure described in the Odyssey of Homer, Ulysses takes place all on one day - June 16, 1904, in Dublin. Advertising salesman Leopold Bloom stands in for Odysseus, and the book's episodes have their origins in Homer: there's a Cyclops episode and a Sirens episode and much more, all complex and modern and hard to follow. Friends and experts had been pressing Ulysses on me for decades, but despite countless frustrating attempts I had never been able to get very far in it.

Then came the early summer of 2001, which seemed to bring an Odyssey onslaught. The movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?," the Coen brothers' free retelling of the Odysseystory, came out on DVD. Cold Mountain, the Charles Frazier novel of a reluctant soldier making his adventurous way home from a horrific war, sat on every night table and was in development as a film. When my oldest friend asked me to read something at his wedding, I was almost unsurprised when another friend recommended "Ithaca," a lovely reconsideration of the wanderings of Odysseus by poet Constantine Cavafy.

And, most especially, Bloomsday approached. Among its devotees Ulysses has become less a book than something of a cult, and the feast day for that cult is June 16, Bloomsday. All over the world on that day people read Ulysses aloud, celebrate it in drama and song, and above all, get drunk. In Dublin, Mecca for Ulyssescultists, thousands of people gather to enact scenes from the book, engage in panel discussions about the book's opacities, and actually retrace the steps of the book's characters. This outpouring of obsession towards a book I found unreadable drove me mad. After all, I'm a writer - I'm a literary guy. And I believe this obsession makes literary guys look like pseudointellectual nitwits. I wanted to distance myself from those nitwits. So in June 2001 I read a brief essay on the radio announcing that after decades of attempts I was officially declaring Joyce's book not worth the trouble: I was using that year's Bloomsday celebration to forever renounce Ulysses. The book ends with Molly Bloom's forever-quoted benedictory, "yes I said yes I will Yes." So on the day its adherents worshipfully followed the footsteps of its fictional characters, I pledged to finally consign the book to my shelf unread, echoing its conclusion: "no I said no I won't No."

I CAN'T SWEAR IT WAS THE WORK OF THE GODS, but I was a liar inside a month.

Someone who heard my essay convinced Matthew, a bookstore manager well-read in Joyciana, to lead a Ulyssesreading group. And because I had written the scornful essay that got the group started, they invited me to join. I had just publicly sworn never to read Ulyssesas long as I lived; doing exactly the opposite made for a pleasing irony. I joined up. Matthew led us through complex schema and thickets of commentary, and over four months alternated between coaxing and dragging us through Ulysses. Occasionally with Matthew's help I was thrilled by a pun in two languages, a sly classical reference; more often I complained. Challenged and interested, I still rarely doubted the good sense of my original inclination to give the book up.

And for me, most important was that the further we moved along, the less Joyce commanded my attention. Instead, I thought more and more about the Homeric tales behind it all. I grew interested in the Odyssey itself.

I couldn't help thinking: What gives? Everywhere you turn, the Odyssey - and it's not like it's something new. For 3000 years, we've been telling each other the same story. Whether it's Joyce's book or Tennyson's poems, a symphony by Max Bruch or heavy metal by Symphony X, pictures by Matisse or Chagall, we're still finding new ways to tell each other the episodes from that old story. I wondered why.

These are some of the best known episodes in the world: Odysseus defeats the Cyclops; Odysseus agonizes over the terrible decision between Scylla and Charybdis; Odysseus escapes the Sirens, who lured unwary sailors onto the rocks. I noticed, though, that I couldn't quite remember, for example, how the Sirens lured those unwary sailors. In fact, I couldn't remember a lot. I knew Odysseus poked out the eye of the Cyclops, but I couldn't say how that fit into the larger picture. Scylla and Charybdis was a hard choice, but between what, and regarding why, I was in the dark. I hadn't read the Odyssey for years, but even so I seemed to have forgotten a great deal.

My wife noticed my increasing interest in the story, and she one day saw at a flea market a little book with a jacket all of blue: a simply drawn sea, and on it, alone, a tiny yellow boat. The Odyssey of Homer, in a 1960 translation by one Ennis Rees, in a nice handbook size. It found a place on my night table, and once our reading group was done with Ulysses, I opened the Odyssey to reread it.

I COULDN'T REREAD IT - which leads to a more embarrassing reversal, though on a more intimate scale. After not very many pages and some honest consideration, I had to acknowledge that the reason I remembered so few specifics about the Odyssey was that I had never read it at all. Unfortunately, I had been brashly claiming to have done so my entire adult life.

I remember the little red version of the book I got in ninth-grade English, and I remember a color lithograph it contained of a bearded guy on a raft in a stormy sea. Seeing it on my reading list, my mother had assured me: "If you can get past the language, it really is just the greatest adventure story." The story of Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War, making his ten-year journey home from the Greek victory at Troy, the Odyssey, by the blind poet Homer, was one of the epic poems that constitute the foundation of Western Civilization. Shipwrecks, storms, monsters, witches, pretty girls, gods and goddesses, archery, treasure, swordfights - all this awaited if I could "get past the language."

No chance. Homer's classical rhythms resisted me in adolescence as fiercely as Joyce's tortured syntax did in adulthood. All I remember now from that English class is a movie we saw of part of the Odyssey, in which a man wanders among stone walls, orating the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops. Odysseus and his men, trapped in a cave by the giant Cyclops, get the Cyclops drunk and blind him, then slip past him by hanging onto the bellies of his sheep as they exit the cave. Describing it, the actor brayed like John Gielgud: "My raaam," he moaned as the Cyclops, "my faaavorite raaam," and as he stood there swaying my momentary flicker of interest - a monster! A big stick in his eye! A daring escape! - vanished beneath the tide of well-meaning dramatization meant to impress ninth-graders.

We cheated on quizzes and dawdled through class, wrote themes and moved on to whatever was next, and that was my junior high school Odyssey experience. A color lithograph, a tiresome movie, a book I didn't read. And though one collegiate summer I filled a hole in my education and read the Iliad, Homer's other masterpiece, I never returned to the Odyssey. It was checked off that giant list of books you are supposed to have read, and I never went back.

Which is too bad, because from somewhere, elements of the Odyssey definitely did become part of my life. Its content creeps into our minds through back channels, like the symphonies we learn by snatches as background music in Bugs Bunny cartoons: half-understood college lectures; popular references to the danger of "siren songs" or being "between Scylla and Charybdis"; hints of the Odyssey in poetry and popular song. The Odyssey is a classic - it's one of those books whose stories we all sort of know, from somewhere, but in most cases don't really know from anywhere.

That vague understanding can be dangerous. I told people I had read the Odyssey. I deeply believed I had read the Odyssey. I have specific memories, in post-college years, of pontificating about the admiration I had developed for Odysseus; about Athena, the goddess of wisdom who is his special protector, and how one might please her; about traveling, about home, about challenge.

Some of what I said actually made sense. For example, I compared Odysseus to other protagonists in Greek myths and plays. At least one terrible thing happens to almost all of them: Agamemnon kills his own daughter and is killed by his faithless wife; Oedipus kills his father, sleeps with his mother, pokes his eyes out; Hercules goes mad and kills his own wife and children. Theseus causes his father's suicide when he forgets to signal his own safety; Perseus kills his grandfather with a discus; Atreus invites his brother Thyestes to dinner - and feeds Thyestes his own children. That's hardly the worst of it - consider Medea: To help her lover Jason, Medea kills and dismembers her own brother and boils Jason's uncle alive; when Jason then decides - can you blame him? - to marry someone else, Medea kills Jason's bride, Jason's father, and her and Jason's own two children.

Odysseus on the other hand manages to win the decade-long Trojan War (the famous Trojan Horse is his idea). Then, overcoming unimaginable difficulties on his way home, he eventually returns to find his only son healthy and grown, his wife faithful and safe, his father overjoyed. According to at least one version of events, Odysseus lives happily ever after.

That Cyclops episode, probably his most well-known adventure, represents my conception of him perfectly. He can't match the giant bad guy physically, so he outwits him - he calls himself "No-man," so when the fighting starts and the Cyclops shouts that "No-man is killing me," his neighbors figure he doesn't need their help. The Cyclops, like most of Odysseus's enemies, ends up claiming he was cheated. Odysseus wins, but not because he's biggest; he's just the sneakiest.

Baseball fans might compare Achilles, the vain, arrogant hero of the Iliad, with someone like Ted Williams: undeniably great, but not necessarily good for the team or pleasant to be around; Agamemnon might be Ty Cobb, vicious and dangerous but hard to beat; and Menelaus something like Mickey Mantle: great and useful but something of a blowhard. Odysseus would be Pete Rose: the sneaky little bastard who pulls off some kind of trick that you think is beneath contempt, but carries the day. The guy you call a liar and a cheat - unless he's on your team. Then he's just a guy who does what it takes to win. I began to think - and more than once said out loud - that a good way to live your life was to live it as much like Odysseus as possible. I said it often enough that I began to consider it one of my life's principles.

Thus as we plowed through Ulysses I was embarrassed to notice that I didn't have more than a vague notion of exactly how Odysseus had lived his life. And then, on my night table, that gift from my wife: The Odyssey, and the chance to really read it. Leave it to your wife to make you finally find out whether you really believe what you always say you believe.

IT'S ENOUGH TO MAKE YOU BELIEVE IN THE GODS. Sure, the Odyssey is still a little long, still a little dense, and the epic poetic language does take some getting used to. Nonetheless I read it - on my own - and by the time I finished I felt the book had sought me out, that my need for the Odyssey had manifested itself and brought the book to me - "with the help of some god," as characters in Homer commonly say of remarkable occurrences. I had ignored it in the ninth grade and in my twenties blindly claimed to adopt its hero as my model. But when in my 40s I finally actually read it, the Odyssey turned out to be everything I had ignorantly imagined it might be.

First, as my mother promised all those years ago, it's a great story. But there's a lot more, too: those famous stories we all half-know turn out to constitute rather a small portion of the whole - about four chapter-length books out of 24 total. And the remainder, the parts of the Odyssey nobody talks much about - the wanderings of Odysseus's son, Telemachus; the struggles of Odysseus's clever wife, Penelope; the challenges that await Odysseus when he finally returns home - have a resonance I never imagined. A funny thing about the difference between 14 years old and 44: This time the Odyssey spoke to me. This time I got the language. This time I couldn't let it go.

Episodes to which I had been referring for decades suddenly made sense - and stories whose fatuous morals I thought I knew (Rely on your wits, not brute strength! Choose carefully among difficult alternatives! Don't seek to know more than is good for you!) turned out to have unexpected depth and complexity. Moreover, Odysseus spends a lot of time - a lot of time - in this book sleeping with goddesses.

This book got my interest. This was a book worth more than a simple reading. This was a book, at long last, worth the return. I read it again, then again. I came to see the passage of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca as a metaphor, a series of adventures in which Odysseus demonstrates what he needs to learn - or unlearn - to live his life. The Odyssey became the book I carried around, dipping into in spare moments - while the car got an oil change; in the waiting room for the eye doctor; for a few minutes before sleep. I had a handbook: The oldest lessons in the world were still the lessons I needed to learn - and they were still waiting for me in the Odyssey. During those post-college years when I claimed Odysseus as my role model, I had been right. I hadn't known what I was talking about, but I had been right.

So Joyce's impossible Ulysses had done me a favor: Homer wrote down the Odyssey nearly 3000 years ago, and we've been constantly retelling it ever since, but I had still managed to miss it. Only by squaring off opposite Ulysses did I stumble my way back to the original, central story. It was the Odyssey, not Ulysses, that had something for me.

STILL, I DID PILFER ONE IMPORTANT IDEA from the Ulysses community: pilgrimage. Like opera buffs or "Star Wars" fans at a premiere, members of an entire subculture find in Ulyssesa binding element for their lives. Its stories become central to them, known by heart and repeated, studied, appreciated. Ulysses serves as a lodestone text to which they return time and again for understanding.

And Ulysses fans return to more than just their book. Driven by obsession, they return, year after year, to Dublin itself, approaching Dublin as pilgrims, visiting its sites as shrines - going where Bloom went to see what Bloom saw, to learn what Bloom learned. Visiting the sites of the stories in Ulysses brings those stories home, gives them life and substance beyond the book. Through their travel these pilgrims thus go beyond merely reading Ulysses - in this small way they live it, and by connecting it physically to their world make it somehow even more their own.

Thousands of them do this every year.

Somewhere deep inside my brain, this started a train of thought. I wondered: Why don't I do the same? As I read and reread the Odyssey, as I returned to certain passages over and over, gleaning more each time, the Odyssey began to genuinely occupy the central metaphorical position in my life I had once claimed it did. So I thought: Why shouldn't I visit my sacred sites as the Joyceans do theirs? Whom would I meet? What would I find? Why don't I go to Troy, where Odysseus finished the Trojan War, and make my way to Ithaca, the western Greek island Odysseus called home?

I wanted to go where Odysseus went, to learn what Odysseus learned.

THE MORE I THOUGHT ABOUT IT THE MORE SENSE IT MADE. For one thing, the timing was right. Odysseus leaves for the Trojan War when he's a young father. He stays at Troy for a decade fighting, and after the war spends another decade making his way home, arriving presumably in his mid-forties. That's when the Odyssey is set - Odysseus tells the adventure stories largely in flashback. That is, at the time of the action of the Odyssey, Odysseus is my age.

Since we were the same age, I found comparison natural. Here's Odysseus at around 44: He has a grown son. He has won the greatest war of all time. Then, overcoming unimaginable perils, he has traveled not only the known world but the unknown, outfoxing monsters and bedding goddesses, makng his way home to defeat a palace full of murderous rivals, reestablishing command of his island kingdom. Not bad. Okay, here's me: I had paid off my student loans. I had been employed significantly more than I had not. I had a failed marriage, though prospects for the second one looked pretty good. I knew that pouring gas in the carburetor will sometimes get a balky lawnmower to start. I had nursed 14 years out of a pickup truck. I can hang a ceiling fan, build closet shelves, throw darts well enough to win a wall plaque. Interesting, but looking around me I saw no kingdom; in the rearview mirror I saw no enraged monsters, vanquished by my hand, screaming for vengeance; in memory, depressingly few goddesses demanded my sexual favors.

Of course, I blame circumstances; my lack of heroic stature is not entirely my fault. After all, I lack heroic milieu. Despite war, global warming, terrorism, and a host of other troubles, for American suburbanites challenge is generally lacking. A big adventure means going camping and not bringing the cell phone; when we talk about challenge we mean life without cable, a broken air conditioner, going out to get an ink cartridge and having to drive to two stores.

So you can't blame me for wondering: Is that all there is? I mean, worship youth all you want, remain youthful through diet, exercise, surgery, prayer. But whatever you do, by the time you hit your mid-40s, you're slowing down, and you've got to start approaching your life differently, shortening your batting stroke. Looking in the mirror at that guy hitting Odysseus's age and heading for decline, I had to figure: It's now or never. You want adventure? Time is getting short.

So perhaps my most powerful motive as I considered the Odyssey was simple: existential fear. I wasn't ready to be done adventuring, so the idea of retracing the route Odysseus took quickly began to feel inevitable: One last heroic, Joseph Campbell-style adventure to mark the passing of my adventuring years. In fact, Odysseus returns home so exhausted, so sick of war, so weary of travel and excitement that he hopes to never leave home again - a state of mind I couldn't imagine, but that I deeply envied. Wouldn't it be grand to feel so complete, so finished? I aspired to even a tiny piece of Odysseus's weariness, his gladness to be through with adventure, to be home at last. All I needed was a trip all over the known world and beyond.

OR A JOURNEY AROUND THE MEDITERRANEAN might work. For one thing, after several peripatetic years, my wife, June, and I had returned to our home and were just getting our lives organized; a big trip-sized lacuna could still probably find its way into my schedule. For another, I was no stranger to long journeys. A year abroad in college had taught me the rudiments of unscheduled backpack travel: creativity in sleeping arrangements, reliance on street-vendor food, and a willingness to try and make myself understood in a language unknown to me. Perhaps as a result, a lifetime of semi-planned travel - backpack, floppy hat, hiking boots, and all - has ensued. At 44 and married, I had to figure that kind of travel, too, was unlikely to remain part of my world much longer.

So one more trip sounded like a grand last hurrah. I was owning my middle age. Instead of chasing secretaries or sports cars, I had found a better rite of passage. My old hero Odysseus and I would have a season together, and after that - well, after that I'd worry about what came next. Moreover, a trip is always a trip: You can choose where to begin, but you can't choose where, when, or how it will end and what you will find on the way. That's probably the moral of the Odyssey- as any competent ninth-grader could tell you - but as I pieced together my trip I failed to see it. Maybe I shouldn't have cheated on all those quizzes.

I sketched it out: For several months I'd haunt libraries, finding what I could about the route Odysseus took. In a considered, organized fashion I'd contact classicists, archaeologists, translators. I'd learn a few words of a few languages, make reservations. I'd load up on maps and Euros and then, prepared, I'd set out in the wake of Odysseus. I had a plan.

ANOTHER PLAN - only this wasn't a mere claim about a book, this was an entire campaign, so you know what comes next. In this case it took less than a week.

One morning I mulled things over, lying in a pile of laundry on our bed. For how many months should I explore the libraries? People had been speculating on the route of Odysseus for millennia, with no consensus; from the arguments and suggestions, how ought I to choose my destinations? What experts might be able to help me find my way? What time of year ought I to travel the Mediterranean? How much time ought I to spend? What to bring?

Lost in thought, I cogitated until I became aware of a presence in the doorway. June stood there, a small smile on her lips. In her hand a pink plastic stick about the length of a thermometer, held in a towel. A pregnancy test.

"What do you think?" my wife asked me.

"Do both of those stripes look pink to you?"

WE MADE A BUNCH OF DECISIONS QUICK. June had supported the trip from the start, and she had no interest in saddling our unborn child with the blame for a change in plans: we never even considered canceling the trip. In fact, impending fatherhood made the journey feel even more important. Still - you can't plan for surprise, and nobody wanted me out wandering the planet when June had our baby. The rank of calendar pages for my adventure, stretching gracefully into the limitless future, suddenly accordianed down. I could still retrace Odysseus's adventures of twenty years.

I just had six months to do it.

Reprinted from NO-MAN'S LANDS: One Man's Odyssey Through The Odyssey, copyright © 2008 by Scott Huler. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit