The day after the prerelease book party for A Sense of Direction (May 10, Riverhead Hardcover), the writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s memoir about pilgrimage, writing and relationships—particularly the one with his gay rabbi father—a sizable sample of young people who work in media and publishing were lying in bed, trying not to throw up. Most emails exchanged that morning began with “Ugh.” One said, “I feel like death.”
The Observer did not so much wake up that morning as writhe himself into cold consciousness. The night before, the guests took a bus from Brooklyn’s Borough Hall to a bar in Red Hook with little surrounding it beyond a salvage yard. An invitation promised “infinite nachos.” Karaoke was
involved. The night went dim around the time The Observer was doing his rendition of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” From what he can remember from the first half of the song, he killed it.
The next morning The Observer received an email from Mr. Lewis-Kraus with the subject line “Yo.”
“So what were you saying about the piece? You need to do it soon?”
It turned out many promises were made that night. Mr. Lewis-Kraus followed up with suggestions about where to meet for an interview: “We could walk the length of Manhattan. I think it would take about three hours.” The Observer dry-heaved. “We could also see the nearest place the Appalachian Trail comes to the city.” We responded with a desperate, “What’s this about the Appalachian Trail?” and heard back: “Actually. We might be able to arrange a scene with my dad, too. You should probably read the book first, though.”
We would travel to New Jersey, visit Mr. Lewis-Kraus’s father, and hike the Appalachian Trail to the state’s highest peak. At this point, even the prospect of physical activity was too much, and The Observer rushed to the bathroom.
A lot of A Sense of Direction concerns Mr. Lewis-Kraus running away from his father, so the prospect of meeting him became even more attractive. When he was 19, Mr. Lewis-Kraus’s father came out as gay. At 27, Mr. Lewis-Kraus left northern California, where he’d gone to school at Stanford, for Berlin. He called the move “a preemptive strike.” He wanted to escape his own life in his 20s, rather than at 46—his father’s age when he left his marriage for Brett, “a lovely guy he met at the gym.” In Berlin, he did for a time what a person does after moving to that city—essentially, nothing—until he wanted to escape that as well. So, after a drunken wager with the novelist Tom Bissell, he went on a pilgrimage, walking 500 miles across Spain in a trip known as the Camino. Needing to keep moving—and now having a book in mind about his travels—he spent several months walking around Shikoku, the least populated of the four main islands of Japan. But his life was always close behind. Mr. Lewis-Kraus spends his memoir running. His father is an apparition haunting his sentences, until he finally confronts him on one last pilgrimage. He calls the completed book that he handed to his father “an indictment and the forgiveness.”
On New Jersey Transit, Mr. Lewis-Kraus grabbed The Observer’s notebook and drew a rough map.
“Here’s New Jersey,” he said. “Here’s New York. Here’s Newark. I grew up here”—he made a dot west of Newark (a borough called Watchung)—“in a really small town that, at least when I was young, was sort of between New York suburbs and rural New Jersey. Now that border is considerably farther west. My mom lives here,” he said, pointing south. “My dad lives closer to the city. A town called South Orange.”
Like any good pilgrim, he began rattling off an itinerary that was both specific and open-ended: “We’re gonna take a train to South Orange and he’s gonna give us his car. Then what we’re gonna do is drive—the
Appalachian trail comes in here,” he pointed far west, “at the Delaware
On the Camino, a Christian pilgrimage, walking across Spain with a heretic friend and having to fill 12 hours each day with conversation, you begin to repeat yourself, Mr. Lewis-Kraus said. “And something about the repetition and the heat and the pain in your feet makes you notice the cracks in the story.” In the book, he starts rethinking his father’s letdowns: the time he missed the panel discussion in Chelsea or the time he ignored the magazine article or the time he visited Berlin and the two began fistfighting in the street. The walk never seems to have a point beyond the fact that you’re walking (“weight loss” is a popular answer to why people do the Camino) and so, on Father’s Day, he writes to his dad for the first time in 18 months. He says he loves him and that he’s still angry.
When we got off the train at South Orange, The Observer and Mr. Lewis-Kraus were greeted by a square-jawed man with silver hair, tan skin, a light purple shirt and a friendly smile. This was Dad. He began talking about how he stopped doing temple services a few years ago and now works in a hospice. A recent patient was, as he described her, “inconsolable” and mumbling in Yiddish.
The conversation went on for some time, feeling almost like a deliberate avoidance of the topic of the book, until The Observer asked Rabbi Kraus, “So have you read it?”
“I tell my friends,” he said, “if they’re going to read it, they have to read it until the end. If they stop reading at page 250, they’re never going to want to talk to me again. There are some things in there that are hard to read. There are a couple things in there, which in a perfect world, I would possibly ask him to change—I don’t think they’re entirely accurate. On the other hand, that’s not my place. Look, I think the book is amazing. I cried through most of it. It’s nice to see Gideon in a different light. And there’s nothing in there that’s not accurate.”
At the contradiction that the book is both not entirely accurate and that there’s nothing in it that’s not accurate, the younger Mr. Lewis-Kraus’s eyebrows perched and he whipped out a notebook to scribble down notes.
“You promised me no more memoirs,” his father said. “That pen comes out and I think, ‘Oh, shit!’”
‘I feel like you just got an extremely representative hour with my dad,” Mr. Lewis-Kraus said later in the car. “I thought he was going to read the book and never talk to me again. Because he didn’t even really know that he was in it. I mean, I think he suspected it, but certainly not to that extent. And I was really freaked out. He kept asking to see drafts. He kept asking my brother if he’d seen drafts. Finally, I had to go away to a wedding in September and I had Becky, my editor, send it to him while I was in China.” He laughed. “I had no idea what kind of response I was going to get. I’ll just show you.”
He pulled out an iPhone and looked through his email, producing a message from his father:
Brett read it in one day—and made copious notes. I haven’t slept well since I finished it—I’m not in a hut worried about the rain—but I certainly am not the same person I was before I read it.
A couple random thoughts:
1—I thought about you every single day while you were walking through Spain.
2—I am now really good at logistics. I am able to tackle the
important stuff first, without having to have the inconsequential stuff done first … And I regret, very dearly, not having had this ability for 57 long years.
3—I hope you will be clearer when something is important to you.
4—Regretful that you were born? Are you fucking kidding me?
5—We would like Richard Gere and Jude Law to play us in the movie.
After his trip alone across the mountains of Japan, Mr. Lewis-Kraus asked his father and brother to go with him to Ukraine for the Hasidic pilgrimage to Uman on Rosh Hashanah. All three of them were nervous—the trip had been staged and Mr. Lewis-Kraus and his brother rehearsed the conversations they would have with their father. His father finally came clean about the men he’d been with, about how he didn’t have any regrets. Mr. Lewis-Kraus told The Observer he’d thought, “What’s unusual about my relationship to my dad’s life is not that there were things about it I didn’t know because he was gay. It’s that I was able to indulge the fantasy that he kept secrets only because he was gay.” After parting ways with his father and brother, Mr. Lewis-Kraus got on a 24-hour train ride back to Berlin and began writing.
The Observer and Mr. Lewis-Kraus were walking on the Appalachian Trail and talking about the difference between New York—where Mr. Lewis-Kraus basically settled in 2010—and Berlin.
“New York forces you to come to terms with your own ambition in a way that Berlin doesn’t,” Mr. Lewis-Kraus said. “Whereas in Berlin, nobody gives a fucking shit. I remember at some point somebody had come to visit from New York and had emailed right when she got there and said: ‘So are you free on Thursday?’ And I was like, am I free on Thursday? Thursday might as well be a million years away. Of course I’m free Thursday. I have no idea what I’m doing on Thursday. I’m free right now! Everything in Berlin is: What are you doing right now? And the answer is always nothing.”
“And in New York,” The Observer said, “it’s the endless parties that are not at all parties, where nobody enjoys themselves or has fun.”
“This is why I wanted to have a karaoke party. Why not have everyone be structurally encouraged, by the nature of karaoke, to get hammered? And instead of having shop talk, people will just sing. And actually allow themselves to have fun rather than feel this is one more obligation. I wanted people to feel that because they had gone to Red Hook, they had committed to the idea of having a good time.”
Just as we began to get winded, Mr. Lewis-Kraus and The Observer reached the highest point in New Jersey. There was a phallic monument atop it and, looking out at the horizon, one could see where the borders of Jersey, New York and Connecticut converged. We stood for a time in silence. Mr. Lewis-Kraus looked out on the expanse of land below.
“There’s always a feeling with things like this of: ‘What now?’” he said. He paused before adding, “I’m ready to keep moving.”