On the road with adventurer/writer Shelby Tucker.
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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.