Peter Hessler went to China to teach English literature and to work on his writing and to have a Chinese adventure. He did all these things, and a few years later, his book River Town was published.
It's a lovely book, full of poetic descriptions of the Yangtze river town Fuling, where he lived, and a nice personal thread of his changing relationship to China and education throughout. It was lovely, lovely, maybe a bit too lovely. Hessler's voice is so even, so meditative, so patient and loving for most of the book, I found myself missing the wry condescension of Theroux at times. There is nothing Hessler is not empathetic to, nothing he doesn't adore about the town and its local characters. His writing is so imbued with a cautious respect, that I almost felt that it was insincere at times. Or maybe just a bit dull?
At the end of the book, there is a moment or two when he gets really angry, when he gets into a fight with the local Chinese. The book came alive in these moments, throbbing with energy and uncertainty. But then the wave crested and the serene ocean of his writing was calm again. How to describe his voice? Analytical, detached, respectful, admiring, detailed and lyrical at times. Great - but how can one be all those things all the time? I was left wanting a bit more conflict, some more raw confession, personality - and feeling a little bad about it.
But like Hessler, you can't finish the book and not feel a bit attached to the town of Fuling. You've fallen a little in love with it the way he has.
I read River Town because I was heading to a cruise on the Yangtze, specifically the Yangtze Gold Number 6. I was looking forward to our docking in Fuling, even though we weren't scheduled to do anything there really. Our ship made our way slowly through the different towns, past the dam and its strange, gargantuan locks, and we feasted on buffet at every meal and were shepherded around to learn about this gorge or that rock. A great way to learn a little, relax, and gain a few pounds.
When we arrived at Fuling, I felt a little heartbroken, as Hessler must when he visits the town. There was nothing about the place that I could recognize from his book. Not one description would have matched what it is today - sprawling, covered in high rises, luxury riverfront apartment buildings, highways, cars, fashionable people. The only thing that I was happy about was the underwater museum they built for the white crane ridge. Hessler's chapter on it is compelling, and while reading it you fear that the rise of the river may destroy the historical landmark forever. Though underwater, though in a museum, though my cruise tour group rushed me past it and I wasn't able to take a look, I was glad at least that it was still there, the only thing from the entire book that I could recognize, still love.