Wayne McLennan is a rare thing – a man who is equally at home and accomplished drinking in the world’s toughest bars as he is writing prose. Captured here in 15 story-length chapters – each one a separate episode that has only McLennan as its continuous reference point – we travel with the author as he works his way around the globe undertaking a series of demanding jobs in romantic yet remote corners.
Born in the mid-Fifties and raised in a small Australian town in the Hunter Valley coal fields, McLennan was determined not to follow his forbears down the mines – and so, somewhat improbably given his outgoing approach to life, he got a job as a bank clerk. Soon bored beyond belief by the petty mindedness and bureaucracy of his mercantile existence, he vowed to himself that he would never again stick to one job and that he would travel as widely as possible.
True to himself he took off, travelling first, like so many Antipodeans before him, to London and Earl’s Court, where he worked in a pub and on a building site, before buying a camper van and driving through France to Spain to the running of the bulls at Pamplona. These adventures which form the book’s early chapters – like those that he undertakes in his own country, among them killing a wild pig to prove his machismo – are early rites of passage: tests he unconsciously sets himself before heading for the serious trials and adventures on the other side of the world.
Despite the initial implausibility of McLennan’s bucaneering adventures in the late 20th century, the stories ultimately have a ring of truth. He panhandles for gold in Costa Rica, captains his own fishing boat off Nicaragua, rows with a mate a thousand miles from Seattle to Alaska but is never boastful about his exploits.
His role at the centre of each story is merely to act as the hub around which the stories revolve, freewheeling from a humorous episode in one paragraph to a big-hearted understanding of others’ lives in the next.
In the tough places he finds himself, movingly, even heroically, McLennan seems driven to prove his own worth to himself – and his ever more adventurous (but dangerous) exploits could be read as a man seeking to find his place and purpose in life. Although it is never fully explained, in the book’s final chapter we gain an insight into his motivations as he recalls his friendship with a highly respected Australian flyweight boxing champion Darryl Wallace, aka Charlie Brown, against whom he fought and lost.
It is a Eureka moment for McLennan, and for the reader an invitation to understand what makes him tick and to discover, in McLennan’s view, what makes a man truly a man. It is perfectly pitched and underscores McLennan’s sensitively realised take on life. Rowing to Alaska is Boy’s Own without the bravado: a life-affirming book full of wonderful characters, amazing adventures and great stories beautifully told.