David fished a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it for me. “Of course you’re having a crisis. Look, everybody is having a crisis all of the time. You either feel like you’re too tied up and thus prevented from doing what you want to do, or you feel like you’re not tied up enough and have no idea what you want to do. The only thing that allows any relief is what we tend to call purpose, or what I think about in terms of direction.” … The main problem with desires, Berlin made clear, is that they’re not nearly as authoritative as we wish they were.
One year ago I flew to Berlin for the first time to check out my escape route. I was 23 and had become both unsure of and terrified by the seemingly stable life that had emerged in New York after college. When I graduated, I wanted nothing more than a job writing for a newspaper. When I got one I realized I wanted to get out of New York.
I sent off applications for research grants in Germany. I’d heard it was fairly easy to get one if you could just focus long enough to put all the pieces together. You’d need, for instance, to figure out a plausible project. Enter: “German Print Media and the Challenges of the Digital Century.” I got funding for a year to move to Berlin with little to no requirements from my financiers besides the expectation that I would be productive somehow.
I had never been, but apparently like a lot of people my age I felt something pulling me to Berlin, pulling me towards the Germans. I had a German last name that I rarely used: it’s hard to say and spell, and I was always entertained by the idea of being able to control how much I was broadcasting my Judaism.
I also just wanted to be around Germans ever since one afternoon in college when my Roman history professor stared me down in a parking lot behind her office and told me with great intensity that no people on earth has had to come to terms with doing something as horrible as the Germans. There was something to be gained from living among them. I also knew from traveling with her through Italy to look at ruins in college that she had a fellowship in Germany during graduate school and had a German boyfriend. She spoke the language quite well, and one afternoon in Sicily used it to ask other tourists where we could go swimming. I don’t think I’d ever heard German spoken before, but the words sounded totally goofy and beautiful.
To hedge my instincts, I told myself that, as far as flights of fancy go, moving to Berlin for a year to research German newspapers would be something I could explain pretty easily (if and) when stability became attractive again and I turned up in New York after a year to find jobs. Growing up in the city and going to a college where everyone ends up in law school or working in finance, those are the type-A reasons you learn to govern your life around. What is the most prudent and rational adventure I can squander a year of my 20s on?
I flew over for a week on Air Berlin to stay with my friend Tomas and see if any of my excuses to leave my job and my city could hold water. Tomas had a research grant of his own — something about Turkish women and the veil in Germany. What we did that week is hard to say. We definitely sat outside a lot. I remember finishing Tom Scocca’s Beijing Welcomes You in the Tiergarten, and thinking about how having the chance to live abroad and write about it, sometimes even for money, seemed like the best job imaginable. I remember going to a gay bar alone on the night bus after Tomas went to bed and, well, realizing that being gay in Berlin would definitely be more interesting than continuing to be gay in New York. There was, and in some ways has always been, something manifestly richer and freer about being gay in Berlin, and I would have to get to know myself better living around that. When I got home early the next morning, Tomas, still half-asleep, told me to wash my hands. I have no idea what he thought I was doing for the last few hours, but I liked knowing that his imagination of gay life involved getting your hands really dirty.
I flew back to New York full of doubts about whether to stay or go, mostly stemming from the other foreigners I met in Berlin and the other boys I knew in New York who had lived in Berlin. I didn’t see myself in any of them, but I knew I’d be following them to Germany in the fall.
A great many New Yorkers who leave the city look forward to having more time to read, me included. One of the first books I picked up in Berlin was Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I realized very quickly that reading books about the holocaust wasn’t going to help me settle in. I tacked to gay memoir, something I always wanted to read more of. I had loved reading Giovanni’s Room, The City and the Pillar, other Gore Vidal, Querelle, Edmund White — books I thought belonged to a gay reading list that I was responsible for getting through. Reading Lolita, which isn’t gay but is most definitely about how we don’t choose who we love, got me to start thinking about coming out when I was 17.
In Berlin, I tucked into Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and then immediately after Stephen Spender’s The Temple because the Isherwood had been too square and oblique. Someone gave me Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal for Christmas, and that made me think I was doing everything wrong.
By the time I got to Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction, I was halfway through my first year in Berlin and I was flying back to New York to see if I’d want to once again leave one city for the other at the beginning of fall. I began the book on the flight, and I couldn’t remember the last time I read something that seemed to be written so entirely for me at an exact moment in time.
The author moves to Berlin on a Fulbright at age 27 to work on “some essay I planned never to write about contemporary young German novelists, about whom I knew exactly nothing.” Part of his Berlin fantasy is reading Middlemarch, but instead he ends up going on a lot of walks and hanging around outside Turkish bakeries. “The rumors of a new Lost Generation were a terrible cliché,” he writes, “but it was too hard to resist them.” He notes later that he finally got around to reading Middlemarch after he moved back stateside while waiting on line for tacos in New York.
Lewis-Kraus’s first chapter does an impressive job nailing down some of the sensations that come with life in Berlin, catching some of the fireflies in the air here. “The whole point of living in Berlin was being an agent in the world of total possibility,” he writes. The other side to that coin is the pervasive lack of constraints. “Who do you want to be?” or “What do you want to do?” are difficult questions to answer when you don’t have to be anybody or do anything. “Cigarettes marked off the time,” he writes. “For the few minutes one lasted, you knew exactly what you were doing: you were smoking that cigarette. When it was done, you would figure out what to do next, or you would just light another.” I kept wondering what attracted Lewis-Kraus to Germany specifically, but he leaves that question unanswered. Maybe the answer just seemed too obvious.
The title, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, comes from a note that Lewis-Kraus scribbles to himself during a four-day bender with his friend Tom Bissell in the Baltics: “Camino de Santiago — sense of purpose — June 10.” Both men need to break out of different ruts in their lives. The endless possibility in Berlin has become restlessness, and Bissell is staring down a book he has to write and the prospect of settling into a relationship. In their stupor, they make plans to hike the pilgrim’s trail, El Camino de Santiago, across Spain that summer.
For Lewis-Kraus, one pilgrimage leads to another: the second, around a ring of 88 temples on Shikoku, the smallest and least populated of the four main Japanese islands; and another, with his brother and their father, a gay rabbi, to the site of a pogrom in Ukraine where thousands of Jews flock to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the grave site of a famous Hasidic leader.
“I keep coming back to the idea that pilgrimage has always been a pretext,” Lewis-Kraus writes near the end of his book. “It’s a way to have a trip with some higher motive.” The main motive in Lewis-Kraus’s case is to understand and fix his relationship with his father, who came out to him when he was 19 years old, something he as a son has never come to terms with.
Lewis-Kraus’s impulse as a memoirist comes from the first thing he wrote extracurricularly as a child, an account of a fight he had with his dad, “an indictment of what I saw as his deceit and hypocrisy.” He slipped his brief, his version of events, under his parents’ door. Maybe that would be a starting point for orderly reconciliation.
Often, as the reader, you are the armchair psychologist listening to a very tightly-wound and at times obsessive patient work through his issues with his father. He revels in his neuroses. These same qualities have made Lewis-Kraus a diligent noticer and note-taker, which is a great asset in his writing, except in the few moments when it takes over. Several passages in the book are interrupted by the author noting that at this point he stopped to write something down in his notebook. The device offers levity but also brews frustration. You want him to battle more intensely with the issues at hand instead of the task of writing. So maybe the book feels staged sometimes, but it’s hard to sustain a travel narrative when your topic has very little to do with your trips. “I only like travel writing when it’s not about travel but rather about friendship, lies, digression, amateurism, trains and sex,” he writes.
Lewis-Kraus’s obsession with and imagination of the role regret has played in his father’s life is the catalyst for his original move to Berlin and for the subsequent pilgrimages: regrets about getting married, regrets about not living his entire life as a gay man, maybe regrets about having his two sons.
Everyone else in Berlin was either twenty-two, just out of leafy liberal arts colleges and in flight from the responsibilities ahead, or they were thirty-nine, just out of a career or a relationship and in flight from the responsibilities behind. For my part, I moved there as a kind of preemptive strike, reasoning that if I bolted while I could, in my late twenties, I wouldn’t bolt when I couldn’t in my forties, or more specifically at approximately forty-six, when my dad left his marriage and moved in with Brett, a lovely guy he met at the gym, and Micah and I could never get in touch with him about car insurance or baseball games because the two of them were always disappearing to the nightclubs of Key West or Palm Springs.
In the first two acts of the book, Lewis-Kraus is furious with his father and they’re not speaking to each other. They have gotten into a fistfight in the streets of Berlin when the father comes to visit with his long-term boyfriend Brett and Brett’s mom, and Lewis-Kraus storms off to the train station to get as far away from them as possible. At the same time he takes issue with his dad for disappearing on their family trips.
Besides his obsession with his dad’s supposed regrets, he also has a whole slew of smaller reasons to resent his father: for buying the magazines that feature his stories, but never reading them; for skipping panels he was moderating to attend a “boozy birthday brunch in Chelsea.” He never knows where he stands with his dad, and that keeps him from wanting to invest emotionally in their relationship.
Lewis-Kraus blames the distance in their relationship on his dad’s gayness. He has painful memories from when he was younger of his dad excluding him from some secret, gay life outside the house. He feels like his dad rubbed that exclusion in his face by dropping innuendos about his gay life, saying things like “you really have to keep your back to the wall in that place,” when walking by Rawhide on 8th Avenue in Chelsea, things you could imagine any gay man who just came out of the closet saying while they’re figuring out how to wear their sexuality.
It’s not always easy to understand why the author is so mad at his father. It could be the reverse phenomenon of mothers feeling close to their sons when they come out because they know they won’t love other women: sons feeling distance from their recently-out gay fathers because of the revelation that they need to love other men. Or it could be a son’s anger and confusion that his chief masculine role model, his father, is doing something subversive with his manhood. “Jesus,” Bissell says to Lewis-Kraus in Spain during one of their fights. “For a guy who’s mostly a giant, arrogant dick who thinks he knows what’s always best for everybody else, you can act like a real child sometimes.” But as is the case with the best neurotics, Lewis-Kraus’s hyper self-awareness comes with a healthy sense of humor. We ultimately want the best for him.
If there’s one grand pilgrimage in the book, it’s Lewis-Kraus’s journey to understand the gay world that he finds himself increasingly surrounded by (his family) and attracted to (Berlin). A Sense of Direction is, at heart, the story of the author’s relationships with other men through his late 20s and early 30s.
First he writes about Micah, his brother, who has become a sort of proxy-girlfriend for him in San Francisco after his post-college relationship ends. Lewis-Kraus paints their relationship as a sort of domestic partnership, with runs together in the evenings and the non-breadwinner among them (Gideon) taking care of the laundry. Micah is the cool affable younger brother many wish they had.
Then in Berlin Lewis-Kraus becomes close with David Levine, “a tall and muscular and perpetually stubbled” artist whom you could imagine “smoking while working out, smoking while swimming.” Levine is one of the father figures that Lewis-Kraus finds in the book, a surrogate who lights red Gauloises for him and helps him feel like, even if life doesn’t make sense, it’s fine. Life never makes sense.
Across Spain, Lewis-Kraus and Bissell form a relationship of mutual parenting and fierce interdependence. This relationship spawns the funniest moments in the book, when Bissell is having his blisters lanced by chain-smoking Catalan nurses on the side of the road or binge-eating after long days on the Camino. “At dinner in the albergue, a buffet, Tom has a feral oblivion in his eyes,” Lewis-Kraus writes. He admits at one point that, all the rhetoric about purpose and direction aside, they’re doing the hike to lose weight.
Lewis-Kraus bonds with his grandfather Max, the straight but adorable octogenarian paterfamilias jock, who makes notes about the soil conditions with respect to cabbage farming as they hike through the Japanese countryside. Max abandons him after the first leg to head back to Vermont, and the rest of the Japanese chapter is a long, lonely meditative slog for the author. Temple after temple flows past the reader, and it’s a nice change of pace from the book’s highly funny and tightly wound beginning and highly emotional and tightly packaged ending.
The pilgrimage to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, the final act, is a love letter from Lewis-Kraus to his dad. He uses the trip to have all the conversations he’s wanted to have and to try to get his dad’s story straight (“so to speak,” the author is always sure to write). On the plane, he begins to “feel a sweet, simple, childish, overwhelming love for the man.” But there’s still the tough business of actually trying to reconcile their problems. Lewis-Kraus wants to finally nail down a reliable and agreed-upon account of how his dad came out, when he began to cheat on his mother and realize he didn’t want to be in the marriage, and if he regretted his choices to get married and have kids. His father has no regrets.
Lewis-Kraus realizes that the distance between the two of them isn’t a factor of his dad’s gayness. “At a certain point other people have to understand that parents keep secrets, that parents close parts of themselves off to their children, because that is what parents do,” he writes.
In coming to this conclusion, Lewis-Kraus has produced maybe one of the hardest-thought books about gayness written by a young straight man. The most interesting dimension of Lewis-Kraus’s relationship to his father’s sexuality is revealed in the moments when he talks about the “dream pedigree” he has for his father as a gay man, “the one that looked to White and Genet and not Will & Grace.” In one memorable passage from Berlin, Lewis-Kraus talks to his young, gay friend Jordan. “They all grew up trying to be straight,” Jordan tells Lewis-Kraus, trying to explain his father’s generation of gays to him, “so when they could finally fuck men, they went all crazy about it, and they still can’t stop fucking, and they’ve saddled us with the idea that gay life should always be this creepy free-for-all of fucking.” Therein lies a fascination also with the broader question of gayness in its ideal form — what makes a well-adjusted, happy gay person? — something straight men don’t get to write about very often. It took guts for Lewis-Kraus to work on the subject.
I finished A Sense of Direction on a layover in Zurich on the way back to Berlin after my week of reconnaissance in New York. I had enough time back in the city to realize that a year wouldn’t be enough in Berlin, and that I would have to stay in Germany longer. The book’s final passages explore the idea of reasons and excuses, and the inconsequence of trying to explain our decisions or the decisions of our friends and family too carefully. Lewis-Kraus has thrown his hands up at the system of cause and effect — the one he has used to write his own story and the story of his father — and the neurotic way of living that he and at least one swath of a generation has been programmed to follow. “There is the life we live,” he writes. “There is the series of crises we do our best to muddle through.”