At a recent book-signing event in Berkeley, Jeff Greenwald was introduced to the crowd as a "brilliant" writer. I beg to differ. Greenwald, a travel writer based in Oakland, is adventurous, funny, and tells a good tale. His latest book, now out in paperback, is "The Size of the World" (Ballantine, 1997) and it's his account of an largely uncomfortable trip around the world without leaving the ground - in other words, he never took an airplane. OK, this is a good schtick and he's a good writer. But let's be satisfied with that and not go overboard - he's not a brilliant writer.
I came to this conclusion after I read his book and stumbled over some of the worst similies I'd ever seen. Similies are dangerous. Used in an effort to be fresh, engaging and whimsical - maybe even original -- they can cause a writer to fall flat on his or her face.
Consider Greenwald trapped in a Moroccan desert backwater waiting for permission to cross the border: "Night fell, landing on our campsite like a case of bad Merlot." A bad case of Merlot?
Or this observation in Florence: "Easter Week in Europe, a Bacchanalian chorus line of hips and heels, tits and ass, dipped me like a gelato cone into a salubrious stew of hot fudge pheromones." I had to read that one a couple of times.
Or this in Turkey as Greenwald tried to decide on his next destination: "My brain was short-circuited, fried, roasted like a marshmallow on a three-tined pitchfork of indecision."
OK, enough. Well, one more. He gets on a bus and says "every single person on it was smoking like a catfish." How, exactly, does a catfish smoke?
I have to say that the Berkeley audience gathered to see Greenwald found him vastly amusing and not an ugly word was heard about his similies.
"The idea for this book came about 2 1/2 years ago, when I was 38 or 39," he said. "I had been a travel writer for 15 years and at first the world seemed to me to be a huge labyrinth full of possibilities for Indiana Jones-type adventures. I was amazed at how enormous and mysterious the world was. And then (after 15 years) I realized that it was just the opposite.
"Every trip began and ended in a sterilized airport lounge. I lost my sense of the size of the world. I didn't know if there was a cure. I realized that in all my travels I'd never been more than five days away from Chicago. So I decided to go clear around the world without getting on an airplane.''
The result was a nine-month journey covering 29,172 miles, 26 different countries and seven oceans. The biggest problem he ran into was receiving permission to cross certain borders, inconveniences that just don't apply to people who fly.
"I got stuck in three different places for a month each time," he said.
Greenwald said he was advanced $10,000 to finance the trip and made it all back writing articles during the excursion.
He said his journey was a perfect coming-of-age ritual. He turned 40 en route, as he reminded us perhaps once or twice too often.
"People travel for all sorts of different reasons," he reflected. "The planet itself fascinates me - this blue, living thing in the middle of all this blackness."
He said his favorite chapter, his favorite part of the trip, consisted of a few days spent in Tangier where he met the writer Paul Bowles. He met Bowles by stopping in at the Morocco Tourist Office and asking the clerk if he could make an introduction. Done and done. Greenwald proves that if you want something badly enough it never hurts to ask.
He also found that people are basically very similar, worldwide.
"A good heart, a good attitude - these things are universally understood," he said. "And all it will take to unite this world is the discovery of another world."
He is now working on a book called "Planet Star Trek" in which he envisions "Star Trek" as a metaphor for contemporary global mythology. I don't exactly understand what he's aiming at in the new book but I know that if steers clear of similies, he'll do just fine.