Neil Peart is the drummer for the immensely successful band Rush. During the course of a year and a half, he lost his 19yo daughter in a car wreck and his wife to cancer. Consumed with soul-crushing grief, he hopped on his motorcycle and traveled over 55k miles across western Canada, the west and southwest of the US, and down through Mexico and Belize. He stashed his bike in Mexico during the latter part of winter, and returned to his home in Quebec through the following spring and summer, then flew back to his bike and rode it home. Two more roadtrips are documented in the ensuing months, though of much shorter and more focused duration. Honestly, though, the roadtrips cease to be an end unto themselves after he gets back to Quebec, and become more scenery for the changes happening inside him.
As a travelogue it works wonderfully for me. He writes about the things I'd notice, though he's much more concerned about food and booze than I am. He's an incredibly well read and thoughtful man and the depth and breadth of his knowledge spills across each page effortlessly. He doesn't just describe the scenery, he places it into ecological and geopolitical context while he ponders his own emotional state with ideas from most of the greatest writers ever. His relationship to his motorcycle and the roads provide a sound material counterpoint to the internal turmoil he wrestles with constantly and makes every mile seem real and vital. He writes about his encounters with strangers and friends and family with equal aplomb, capturing the essence of what he felt at the time without sharing so many details the emotional landmarks get lost.
The format of the book is mostly redacted journal entries and letters he writes to a few close friends, interspersed with short recollections to frame the letters and maintain continuity. For all his protestations of being essentially a shy loner, it's obvious he thrives on the company of people he loves and trusts and it's in his letters where you really see him work through his grief. Most of the letters are to his friend Brutus, who was originally planning to join him for this adventure but unfortunately got himself invited into the US penal system shortly before their planned departure. Brutus begins to take on an almost mythic quality to Neil, a larger than life hero who is equal parts confessional and unquestioning sympathetic listener. Brutus takes on the role of Neil's "better judgement", and several times Neil refrains from too much excess because Brutus isn't there to take care of him.
I've seen several reviews that say the middle of the book is "whiny" - it's a book about a man getting over the deaths of his two greatest loves! What did they think it was going to read like? I feel he does an excellent job of keeping the writing moving and describing the tides of emotion that wash over him, even as he (too slowly for himself to see at the time) processes his feelings and puts himself back together. I felt the ending of the book was rushed (see what I did there?), and frankly, I didn't really need the epilogue. I would have liked to see the book either end one chapter sooner, or expound on how he discovered room in his life for love again in the same sort of detail he used to describe how he put himself back together again.
I can't relate specifically to Neil's situation, but in the last 19 months I've given up a 25 year long relationship with alcohol, gotten divorced, changed jobs, completely changed my living situation, lost my cat companion of 16 years, and basically re-engineered my life from the ground up. The best part of this book, for me, was how he visualized and verbalized his "baby soul"; how he related to it and felt it were a small flame that needed nurturing and protecting. The therapist I talked to when dealing with my alcoholism used a very similar metaphor, so it resonated deeply with me. As Neil learns to cope day to day with the jagged holes in his life, different aspects of his personality emerge and he gives each of them names, not unlike the heroes of greek tragedies who are alternately possessed by different gods (archetypes) as they change through the story.
While the topic of this book is grieving, and the format is a travelogue, this is ultimately a book full of hope and an homage to the triumph of the human spirit to dig deeper into itself than anyone could believe possible. Neil is a rationalist much like myself, and there aren't enough books by rationalists dealing with deep emotional pain, IMHO. To watch someone go through the healing process without the crutch of superstition was very empowering for me.