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Tu connais cette maladie fiévreuse qui s’empare de nous dans les froides
The first nonfiction book that captured my imagination was Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. Halliburton was a Marco Polo for the Jazz Age, one of the last traveling writers to set himself the goal of seeing the whole wide world. He was already a quaint figure by the time I discovered his book in my grandmother’s library in Oxford, Mississippi, and he is nearly forgotten now, but in Halliburton’s heyday his thrilling narratives of voyages to exotic places made him a celebrity and bestselling author to rival Hemingway. There were pictures on nearly every page, many of them photographs of the dashing author in flawless khaki, posing with sultans and mystics. Halliburton swam the Panama Canal, crossed the Alps on an elephant, flew loop-the-loops around the peak of Mount Everest.
The Barnumesque feats of derring-do weren’t what attracted me, it was the glamorous places he visited. Halliburton voyaged to the lost cities of the world, from Machu Picchu to Petra to Angkor. Some of his most renowned exploits took place during an eighteen-month aerial circumnavigation of the globe, which began on Christmas Day 1930 aboard a two-seater biplane called the Flying Carpet, piloted by his sidekick, Moye Stephens. After a dazzling performance of stunts at an air show in Fez, the pair flew across the Sahara to Timbuktu, byword of exoticism and fabulous wealth, which had been closed for centuries to infidels: the city at the end of the world. There he met Père Yakouba, born Auguste Dupuis, a Frenchman who had come to Timbuktu as a Catholic missionary, a vocation he renounced. Yakouba told his biographer, William Seabrook, “I quit the Church because I didn’t want to leave Timbuktu and didn’t want to give up women,” specifically his wife, Salama. Seabrook (whom Time called “the Richard Halliburton of the occult,” because of his investigative books about voodoo and cannibalism) described Salama as a “magnificently strong, clean, healthy, full-grown negress with character and brains,” who bore Yakouba a dozen children.
It would get my narrative off to a neat start if I said that Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels inspired me at the age of eleven to resolve that I would follow in the author’s footsteps and see the world. Growing up in suburban Houston, I didn’t dream of seeing the world, exactly; somehow I just knew that I would. Halliburton introduced me to the concept of the world as a finite place in which one could move about at will. The only difference between driving to the beach for the weekend and a journey to Timbuktu was the force of will required to make it happen, that and the money. If you want to go somewhere, anywhere, you can find a way to get there.
After I graduated from college, I moved to New York, an adventure of a different sort. I arrived in the great metropolis with a trunkful of dreams. (There was actually a trunk, a footlocker from the army-navy store in Houston, which my mother had filled with woollies when I left for my freshman year of college in Massachusetts.) In New York, I devoted what pluck I possessed to making a career as a freelance writer. I was curious about almost everything, which expanded my markets to the editorial horizon but made for an odd collection of clips. On my first overseas re-porting trip, to Buenos Aires, I had two assignments: a profile of a polo player for Sports Illustrated and an interview with Jorge Luis Borges for Connoisseur. I wrote a sports column for Andy Warhol’s Interview, profiled rock stars for Rolling Stone and Life, interviewed orchestra conductors and opera singers for The New York Times and Vanity Fair—anything to avoid getting a job, especially if it came with an invitation to a voyage.