NU Faculty Review: Brian Bouldrey

    Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

    Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

    Listen to Brian Bouldrey talk about Honorable Bandit, the writing life, and Elton John’s “Island Girl”; and a passage from the book read by the author.

    Brian Bouldrey is always moving. As a senior lecturer in the Creative Writing program, he is wont to explode into classes two or three minutes late, donned in camping garb, brandishing a coffee mug and a purple portfolio and detailing the roster of daily complications that make his life virtually unlivable:

    The weather…
    The traffic….
    The scheduling woes….
    The boxes…

    The boxes, yes, on account of the fact that Bouldrey also literally appears to be always moving — a perennial unpacker — shuffling about Chicago like a teleporter, and vacationing to/conferencing in Boston and New York and London and Paris in the meantime.

    He simply can’t stay put. And his latest published book is mostly a chronicle of that peculiar habit. Part travelogue, part memoir, Honorable Banditfinds a jovial Bouldrey trekking with his vivacious German chum Petra across the island of Corsica, and mulling over the details.

    Honorable Bandit by Brian Bouldrey. Photo courtesy of

    And you shouldn’t plan on finishing it in one sitting. Nor two, nor three. You shouldn’t read it too quickly at all, frankly, even though it weighs in at a conquerable 240ish pages. What you should do is sip it, like the Corsican wine Bouldrey is always trying to get his hands on, instead of gulp it — it’s more palatable that way.

    Throughout, Bouldrey is nothing short of a raucous, effulgent tour guide; and it’s comforting, in a way, that the words on the page so closely approximate the attitude and cadence of his speech: “The shape of Corsica is something like a fisted hand holding up its index finger. Not a ‘We’re Number One!’ ballpark novelty foam hand sort of raised finger, but more of a ‘How many times have I got to tell you kids that this island is free and independent?’ raised finger, a scolding finger.”

    His voice is fearless and fun, and, most importantly, alive on the page. But all his tricks — his witty parentheticals, asides, and innuendos; his literary allusions (deployed at will) and an entirely-too-liberal willingness to color an idea with a phrase from French, Italian or (for Pete’s sake) Latin — too often inadvertently obscure, or distract us maybe, from something much more important.

    More disorienting metaphorically is that the GR20, Bouldrey and Petra’s route through the island, can be traversed both ways. A trio of hikers passes them near the end walking in the opposite direction and Bouldrey comments on how far they have yet to go. Reading Honorable Bandit was like that for me in a way, because I could never quite get a firm handle on where the narrative was off to. If, after all, the destination was just another’s starting point, where were we really headed?

    “There’s danger here,” admits Bouldrey in his author’s note. “My meditative chapters … might jar you out of that sweet dreamy sorcery of the journey.” He indicates that the book itself is a conscious mimicry of the physical act of walking — left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot — which is why it oscillates between the narrative of the hike and the reflections, all appropriately labeled: Why I Walk. My concern was that there were so many barriers, so many new-fangled incarnations of narrative stubbornness — not just the oscillations, but the reflections themselves, their untamed quality — that the walking being imitated felt less like a fleet-footed frolic and more like a leaden plodding.

    Bouldrey in his office. Photo by Sam Allard / North by Northwestern

    But in the text, just like on the island, “there is something of a blur between the tame and the wild.” And the strongest moments come when the reflections becomes tame, when Bouldrey takes a deep breath and “documents the undocumentable” — living in San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s, a city trapped in the dark oubliette of, not hell, but HIV. Bouldrey numbers the sections in this chapter. He parcels his images and his memories and his pain, maybe, into manageable chunks. He quarantines them.

    And then the ultimate satisfaction and ultimate redemption comes at the end, when you happen upon someone coming to terms with humanity, someone taking stock of the world and discovering where he fits in. Bouldrey seems to be almost pleading: how can someone who needs to be forever in motion ever truly be comfortable, ever truly be at home?

    “It’s amazing to be able to see the shape of the island from the air, a big Michelin map,” Bouldrey says as he flies away. “It’s like knowing all the vocabulary; all the declensions, all the conjugations, at last, of a language you’ve been struggling to learn — and then it’s time to go.”

    Honorable Bandit functions in the same way. Just as you realize what Bouldrey’s been up to, when you realize that he’s been one step ahead of you the whole time; that there is, after all, an awful lot of art in the fact that this thing you’ve been trying to grapple with has been grappling within itself the whole time; that it is honest, vulnerable and sacred; just when you think you understand where you’re headed, Bouldrey winks. Because it’s done.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.