On the road with adventurer/writer Shelby Tucker.
Shelby Tucker in St. Moritz, 1972
It was August 1952. James Shelby Tucker Jr. was 17 years old. And already he was setting out for parts unknown.
Tucker had been kindly asked to leave East High School for perhaps having too much fun. So a friend of his father recommended that the boy be sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. But before Tucker started school there, his father, who lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and had tired of seeing his son sleep all day and stay out all night at the Pass Christian Yacht Club, told Tucker they were going on a trip — a business trip, start packing.
By the time father and son reached Shreveport, however, Tucker had his own idea. The note he left read simply: “Dad, I’m off to Mexico. Don’t worry. I’ve plenty of money.”
Tucker had $1.42.
That was no problem. Tucker hitchhiked to Texas and then to California, where after 54 hours on the road he had his first look at the Pacific Ocean. He then set out to see Death Valley, but the ride he caught was headed to Idaho. So Tucker went to Idaho, and he reached his father by phone.
“Where are you?” his father asked. “Idaho,” Tucker answered. “Idaho!” was his father’s response.
End of trip? No.
Tucker took in Yellowstone, then Salt Lake City. In Denver, he caught a ride south, until, 50 miles outside Mexico City, he realized he was in the company of drug smugglers. So, he got out of the car, but he made it to the capital. Then he hitchhiked back to Pass Christian. And he entered Andover.
“That trip stamped me for life,” Tucker said when we sat down for an interview last November. He was in Memphis to sign his latest book, a novel called Client Service, from British publisher Stacey International. “I knew I didn’t need money. I didn’t need anything to travel.
“I also learned that the most interesting form of travel is, by far, by foot or hitchhiking. Hitchhiking’s the most selective form of travel. The nicest people stop to pick you up. You have two hours or two days with one person, who will discuss, without constraint, any subject. They’ll never see you again. It’s safe to talk.”
That may be so, but is it safe to talk to the “financial counselors” described in Client Service? They’re employed by World of Finance, a company whose 15,000 salesmen in countries the world over — including Big Orange Country: Tennessee — have been hired to put you into what the company calls a Yes-Frame-of-Mind.
Say yes to investing with World of Finance, and you’ve agreed, whether you know it or not, to a bewildering array of operations that include dollar cost averaging, vertical diversification, “overrides,” “instruments,” “vehicles,” and something called the Fiduciary of Fiduciaries. You may not understand a word of it. You may not come into the money you’ve been promised. But World of Finance sure earns a profit. And in 1969, the Year of Total Financial Service, World of Finance is more than ever banking on it. Until operations come crashing down, the company’s counselors included.
Is Client Service satire? It is. But it’s not too far from the truth when you consider that Shelby Tucker is writing from experience. He was a financial counselor too during the 1960s for Investors Overseas Services (IOS), which was headed by the very public figure Bernie Cornfeld. Until Cornfeld crashed too after the charge leveled against him: fraud.
“What can you do? A lot of people raise their noses about IOS, but the salesmen were the biggest victims of all,” Tucker said in our interview. “They invested their money when IOS went public. They believed IOS to be a sensible proposition for small investors. The salesmen had no idea what IOS had been doing. So, no, I didn’t feel betrayed when the London Sunday Times exposed everything on IOS. I felt stupid. Here I was a lawyer, and here I was financially counseling others but too stupid to counsel myself.”
Tucker joined IOS in 1964 on the advice of his brother, who was already with the company.
“At the time, I was getting nowhere slowly and visited my brother in Cap d’Antibes,” Tucker recalled. “He said, ‘If you sell these instruments for six weeks, you will be free to write forever. You will never have to worry about where your peanut butter is coming from.’
“His prediction was right, except it took me four years of hypothetical employment — or a year’s worth of actual work — to provide for myself for the rest of my life.
“But then IOS went public, and when it did, I thought I’d get in on the ground floor. I invested my fortune and watched it evaporate, which is all right. IOS gave me great fun. It gave me lots of adventures. I spent most of my time traveling.”
Shelby Tucker had already spent a good deal of time traveling, and we’re not talking Mexico City by way of Shreveport and the Pacific Ocean. We’re talking taking a tanker to Venezuela. The tanker was owned by Stavros Niarchos. The father of Tucker’s roommate at Andover was Niarchos’ lawyer. So, four days after graduation, Tucker and his roommate were on a boat sailing to South America, a trip that took him eventually to Israel and Europe. Then Tucker got a telegram from his father. He’d been accepted to Yale.
Tucker had had his fun at East High. Andover taught him to take learning seriously. But Yale showed him what fun learning could be. Nothing put a stop, though, to his taste for travel. According to Tucker:
“At Yale, I was due to do a junior year abroad, and I had a friend at Oxford University. In Oxford, we went for a walk, and I saw a young man and a lady lying in a punt, each with a book and a hamper of food and wine. I asked my friend what they were doing, and he said they were preparing for their final examinations. I thought that’s for me!”
Tucker transferred to Oxford and got a degree in jurisprudence. Then he returned to the States and earned a law degree from Tulane. After Tulane and military service with the National Guard, he found a position in England with an Anglo-American firm, where he practiced law for six months. But the travel bug hit again. And again.
During down time at Oxford, he hitchhiked in North Africa. In 1957, he traveled to Moscow and across Siberia to Peking. A few years later, it was on to India, Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. And later: the Middle East. Then North Africa (again). South America (again). Central America. In 1967, sub-Saharan Africa, the first of more than a dozen trips there over the course of four decades. Off and on, Tucker practiced law. Is it any wonder that one book reviewer called Tucker “an authentic adventurer of expansive Victorian self-confidence”?
Tucker’s family history is more than Victorian. It’s positively Revolutionary. It reaches back to eighteenth-century Virginia and North Carolina, then in the nineteenth century to West Tennessee, where the Tuckers were among the original settlers. Another forebear, Isaac Shelby, a two-time governor of Kentucky, gave his name to Shelby County. Tucker himself was born in Ripley, Tennessee.
Client Service is a homecoming of sorts for the author — who lives today in Oxford, England, with his wife, Carole (herself a distant cousin), and the couple’s Jack Russell terrier — because major portions of the novel are set in Tennessee, from Memphis to Knoxville. The dialogue follows suit. Tucker, who speaks with a mild British accent owing to his decades spent in England, said he had “great fun” with his Southern characters’ speech patterns, which are highlighted in the scenes featuring UT football coach “Moose” Henning and linebacker (and financial counselor in training) Lawrence “Bone” Saxon. (The names of other UT team members are borrowed from Tucker’s East High classmates.)
“There was such joy reverting to the treasured language of my childhood,” Tucker recalled during our conversation. “I could let myself fly. It was the language I used to speak.”
The number of languages he continues to speak? That depends, Tucker said, on what you mean by “speak.” He ran through the list:
“Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese (after a few weeks), German, and then we drop down a bit: Hindustani, Swahili. Then a big drop: Arabic.”
Client Service may be Tucker’s debut novel. It is not his first book. Among Insurgents: Walking Through Burma (2000), Burma: The Curse of Independence (2001), and The Last Banana: Dancing with the Watu (published in 2010 and available in paperback) combine recent history, current events, and first-person narrative. All three books have been critically acclaimed outside the United States, where, to the author’s disappointment, his books have received less attention. On The Last Banana alone, according to overseas critics:
“He is a genuine one-off, with no earthly competition,” wrote Robert Carver of Tucker’s appetite for adventure.
“The best book about Africa I have ever read, or am ever likely to read,” wrote another reviewer.
But closer to home: “Could Evelyn Waugh have done better?” wrote Charlotte Hays in Delta Magazine.
Over the years, Tucker himself has contributed book reviews and essays to publications such as The Times Literary Supplement and the Financial Times in England and in Memphis to The Commercial Appeal. His marriage even made it to the local press, with news that “the happy couple are honeymooning in Juba.”
Which is today in South Sudan, Tucker pointed out, then added: “Juba was a real dump. To reach a restaurant, Carole and I had to step over a sewer. At the back of the restaurant was ‘the room where nobody lives,’ which is to say the bathroom. The waiter was a leper. I was insensitive to all that. I was more interested in the people there: these tall, magnificent warriors. I said to Carole, ‘Isn’t this all so wonderful?’ That was her breaking point.
“In retrospect, Carole thinks these were wonderful trips we took. At the time, she was asking, ‘Where can we get a nice, clean hotel?’”
The same question might have been asked by Tobias Wolfe, who wrote of Tucker’s Among Insurgents, a tale that includes the author’s capture by Burmese Communist guerrillas, a run-in with Christian Kachin rebels, and arrest by the Indian army: “I have seldom been more aware of the line between courage and lunacy.”
A certain lunacy — financially speaking — fills the pages of Client Service, which, while fictional, deals in slippery schemes reminiscent of the two real-life Bernies: Cornfeld, across continents, in the ’60s, and Madoff, in the U.S., more recently. But crossing continents is by this point second nature to Tucker. Just two years ago, he entered Damascus and traveled the troubled Middle East. That journey included his hitchhiking in Iran (“one of the best experiences I’ve had,” Tucker reported), despite difficulties here and there, including with Pakistani officials. But even Tucker admitted he’s slowing down.
His writing, however, is not. His first novel, finished before the publication of Client Service, is set to come out in the spring of 2014 and concerns a young man who travels to India an agnostic and returns home a Christian. He’s also readying another memoir, this one about his travels in India in 1960 and a return trip 50 years later.
How alike is Shelby Tucker to that other Mid-Southerner who wrote of the worldwide open road, Richard Halliburton? Alike enough to be a distant relative and an inspiration.
“Halliburton’s Royal Road to Romance was certainly an influence on my wanderer-writer’s life,” Tucker wrote in an email following our conversation in Memphis. He was back in England, preparing a trip to Tanzania. Tucker’s email continued:
“To his father’s urging to rid himself of his wanderlust, return to Memphis, and adjust his life to ‘an even tenor,’ Halliburton had replied, ‘I hate that expression,’ and asserted that ‘as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible . . . . And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain, and thrills — any emotion that any human ever had — and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.’
“Halliburton was spared that fate,” Tucker pointed out. “He died trying to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific.”
Which is one adventure Tucker has yet to have. But still there’s time. And age hasn’t stopped him. On March 1, 2013, James Shelby Tucker Jr. turned 78.