When Matt Gross finished college, he moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — without a job or any friends there. He was “twenty-two, clueless, and lucky,” and calls it one of the best decisions he’s made. The experience inspired future adventures: Gross eventually became The New York Times’s Frugal Traveler and later wrote their “Getting Lost” column, turning wandering into a full-time career.
His debut travelogue, “The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World” is a collection of anecdotes from these (mostly solo) wanderings. Gross calls it the “last guidebook you’ll ever need,” urging readers to leave behind maps, brochures, and technological devices and go explore. But his disjoined narrative and self-involved tone weaken otherwise colorful stories.
The book takes readers across the world, from Gross’s stint in Vietnam, to a cross-country road trip, to a quest to unearth family history in Lithuania. Structured by themes — getting sick, making friends, traveler vs. tourist, ethical dilemmas — the book pivots between time and place. Gross rightly admits: “these sorts of jumps may be disconcerting.”
But more than the haphazard structure, Gross himself is not the most likable narrator. He takes himself too seriously, referencing “deep” thoughts, spending time alone listening to “dark” music and reading “weighty novels (Pynchon, Barth, Wallace),” while “contemplating . . . loneliness.” He frequently compliments himself, seemingly by accident. Among other skills he wants you to know he has, Gross makes friends “without consciously trying to.”
On the subject of friends and family, Gross doesn’t paint them in a particularly flattering light. A potential friend in Vietnam was “like me, a wannabe writer, but so argumentative, so New Yorky, so . . . Jewish (like me) that I instantly resented his presence in this country,” Gross writes. And grievances towards his family often make Gross sound like a disgruntled adolescent. Gross still resents his brother (who “needed to have the world explained to him”) for revealing his secret girlfriend to their parents as a kid. And jabs at his wife (“she’s wrong, I’m right”) leave a sour aftertaste.
Gross’s treatment of women, in general, deserves review. References to almost-hookups with women who are not his girlfriend and declarations like “[h]ad I been more attractive and less ethically bound, I might have left children in many lands,” were off-putting. Gross doesn’t want to lie to his girlfriend (which he finds “easy”) because when people believe his lies he is “disappointed in their gullibility.” An unsavory scene with prostitutes in Vietnam comes off as gratuitous. Gross justifies his behavior by writing: “For all his naïve ambitions and literary pretensions, the younger Matt Gross was trying to figure out, on a very basic level, how to relate to other people.”
Gross also misses opportunities to forge connections with locals. Sticking with the familiar, Gross cavorts with a “posse of Americans” in Bologna, Italy, hangs with people from the States in Vietnam, and chats up a New Yorker in Bardstown, Ky. When he permeates the Pine Woods Indian Reservation in South Dakota (where “there are far too many trailer homes”) a Native American invites him in. Eventually, the man — who Gross calls an alcoholic but “not a lifelong loser” — asks him for money. He refuses. The moral? “Guilt is the ultimate province of the thinking traveler.”
Composing a meaningful narrative out of travel anecdotes is a tall task. And to his credit, “mastering the psychic challenges of travel” is an admirable goal. Gross exposes loneliness and questions the worth of his writing, in one instance even disclosing a critical note from his editor.
Ultimately, however, Gross’s attempts to connect — with the reader and with those he encountered in his travels — come across as half-hearted. A little more humility would have gone a long way. For all its good intentions, the pieces that make up “The Turk Who Loved Apples” add up to a less-than-satisfying whole.