Terrific book by actor Andrew McCarthy is more than just a travelogue

The Longest Way Home
***1/2 (out of four)

Folks who watched a lot of movies in the 1980s may recall Andrew McCarthy as the charismatic star of such hits as “Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Weekend at Bernie’s.”

In recent decades, however, McCarthy has emerged as an award-winning travel writer, penning pieces for National Geographic, The Atlantic and The New York Times.

Judging from his first book, this newfound success is well deserved.

Released late last year, “The Longest Way Home” is simply terrific.

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for elegantly written books about little-known places; but as suggesed by McCarthy’s subtitle -- “One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down” -- this is more than just a travelogue.

True, he recounts lengthy sojourns at such exotic locales as the Amazon, Vienna, Costa Rica, Dublin, Patagonia and Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I didn’t even know where Patagonia was.  That’s one thing I love about travel books; they’re an excellent excuse to shed your ignorance.

Especially enchanting are McCarthy’s trek across South American glaciers; his challenging ascent of Africa’s highest peak; his willingness to get lost in the middle of nowhere; and the idiosyncratic people he meets -- plus the often-hopeless cars he rents and tries to drive.

One highlight is a brief episode in which the author and some fellow-travelers manage to get medical assistance for an Amazon girl with a horrific mouth-rotting disease that was slowly killing her.

(The end of her tongue had turned black and she was forced stick it out all the time -- ugh!)

But despite McCarthy’s absorbing adventures, this book is really an account of his efforts to commit to marriage -- to settle down with a family and abandon his life-long independence and solitude.

The book opens with his decision to marry his long-time girlfriend and mother of one of his children (he has another from a previous marriage); yet McCarthy immediately accepts a raft of assignments that will keep him far from home for most of the ensuing year.

Both he and his fiance know that these trips express his reluctance, and that he somehow needs them to work out who he is, why he prefers to be alone and whether he can make a go of full-time family life.

In the process, McCarthy is bracingly honest about his feelings, fears and failures -- and better able than most 50-year-old men to examine what drives him, even as he wonders how healthy it is.

When the big day finally draws near, McCarthy finds himself coming round to commitment -- thanks partly to the example of his fiance’s winsome Irish parents; and suddenly the book becomes a nail-biter, with the author facing several last-minute obstacles that threaten to confound the wedding.

And the end is letter perfect.

If you’re a McCarthy fan or you love travel books (or if, like me, you’re both), then grab this book -- and clear your schedule.

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