In Bill Roorbach’s latest book, a collection of 11 essays, he takes us on a physical and spiritual journey that begins in France and returns to America, where he travels the breadth of the country in search of a place to call home. Into Woods is less about Roorbach’s geographic destination, the woodlands of Maine, than his exploration of life, relationships, the meaning of manhood and the ever-elusive pursuit of happiness.
The book, Roorbach’s fifth, picks up where his earlier memoir, Summers With Juliet , left off. It is an earthy and disarmingly honest blend of humor, travelogue, social observation and commentary – and a dash of philosophy and a hearty helping of wit, to boot. Roorbach grabs readers right away with his first essay, “Honeymoon,” a hilarious account of his and Juliet’s first weeks of marriage outside the small French agricultural town of Cerqueux sous Passavant.
Juliet is there to attend art classes; Bill hangs around their rented cottage during the day, writing. To the natives, he is viewed as a slacker and entirely too old for Juliet, with whom the younger men unabashedly flirt. It’s France, so there are prodigious quantities of wine to be drunk, stories to be told and famously rude natives to be dealt with.
In subsequent pieces, including the title essay “Into Woods,” Roorbach allows us to travel with him to Montana, Maine, Ohio (where he never quite feels comfortable) and finally back to Maine, where he resides today working on his next novel.
Numerous themes are explored throughout Into Woods, but the most soulful is in the final essay, “My Life as a Move,” in which Roorbach tells of his search for a place to call home. It is a theme that will resonate with readers who have found their lives caught up in the meandering and migratory impulses of modern American society.
Ohio, where Roorbach had “probably the best creative writing job in America,” turned out not to be his final stop in his search for a place to hang his hat:
“The plain, sturdy landscape of the central part of Ohio seems to attract plain, sturdy minds, smart people whose thoughts despite intelligence don’t climb many hills, but hop on the perfectly straight interstate and go where they’re going, whose rivers of emotion are stable, easily dammed, slow flowing, often muddy and brown, oxbows of indirection hiding great fish of aggression . . . who like gathering, since gathering is easy; high school football games in great stadiums, endless malls, giant universities. People who need dramatic or intricate or undulating or featured or obfuscatory landscape don’t stay here. People who don’t, do. And they have children over generations so that a new species emerges: Ohio Man. Or am I just being mean, blaming Ohio and everyone living there for my own psychic struggles?”
People like Roorbach who have experienced life as a move will identify with his discontent. Some places simply feel more like home than others. Blame it on the climate. Blame it on the culture. Blame it on our own restiveness. It’s there. But in the search for a place to call home, how do we know when we arrive?
Roorbach’s last three words invite the question: “Are we home?”
Sometimes it’s easier to know when you’re not than when you are. And, perhaps, finding home is also about hanging around long enough in one place for it to emerge from the landscape.
For now, for Roorbach, home is Maine. For readers who take Into Woods into their home, they are in for a “journey in joyous prose,” as a headline in the Hartford Courant put it. In the accompanying review, book critic Carole Goldberg noted that `if Into Woods has a flaw, it’s that Roorbach’s trademark breathlessly cascading passages . . . can overwhelm if the essays are read one right after another.”
Put another way, Into Woods is like a fine, robust wine, best served in sips so its full flavor can be appreciated. It would be a waste to rush through it. After all, it’s about the journey, not the finish.