Book Review: Quest
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A poignant memoir of danger and missteps on the path to openness, purpose, and love
Quest is an eloquently told memoir that centers the desire to live a life of both “meaning and compassion.” It’s an adventure story that weaves international politics with a connection to nature.
Academically accomplished, physically fit, and daring, John Graham led an action-packed life as a young man. While studying geology at Harvard, he traveled in 1962 to climb the Matterhorn in Switzlerand, hitchhiking through Algeria on his way home and selling a story to the Boston Globe. The following year, at age 20, in Alaska, he climbed the North Wall of Denali, then called Mount McKinley, and survived a rock avalanche; the “Harvard Route” was named for his climbing team, as no one else has ever completed it.
Mountain-climbing didn’t scare him, but he was “terrified that I’d inherited my father’s gentleness and not my mother’s spine.” He’d been impressed as a teenager to spend time with sailors who treated each other with “real violence” and “magnificent cussing,” showing him “how real men walked, talked and, moved through the world.” He wanted nothing more than adventure.
Immediately upon graduation, he rode the Orient Express to Istanbul with an assignment from the Boston Globe to write about the violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. As an “adrenaline junkie,” he aspired to be a journalist, but he decided that as a diplomat instead he could still have “dangerous field assignments…and be pursued by beautiful women in places with unpronounceable names.”
Turning 25, Graham joined the U.S. Foreign Service and married Mimi. The latter was a marriage of convenience from the start. Both spouses were career-driven and “selfish,” in Graham’s estimation, planning their lives for themselves and not for each other.
It’s a complicated story. Beyond the confessed machismo and exoticism, it’s easy to be frustrated with some of the choices Graham makes in his early years. He seems upset with himself, too. He regrets his strongly worded advice to the deputy mayor in Huế, Vietnam in 1972 that he should “set up a firing squad” to discourage desertion. “I’d long since known that the war was a lost cause,” Graham says, admitting: “Vietnam was a self-centered game for me, and those farm boys were pieces on the board.” The mayor actually did set up “three large execution poles;” Graham never asked if they were used. He was left with “violent nightmares” and “moral emptiness.” Later came the friend who dropped by his house around Christmas 1979, unannounced, in terrible emotional shape, seeking a kind word, as Graham and his wife were preparing “a big-deal dinner party.” Graham suggested meeting the next day. For that friend, there was no tomorrow. Graham acknowledges his grief and his error, but only briefly.
When you stick with the story, you get a sense of the magnitude of the life transformation that Graham goes through. His foreign service career and his marriage were a phase of his life that lasted 15 years. One day, in a consciousness-raising group, his acquaintances told him they perceived him as a “naturally gentle and caring man…drowning in my own macho bullshit.” Initially resistant, but realizing he had to be more true to his ideals and his heart, he quit the career and the marriage. So, if there isn’t necessarily a resolution to any particular episode, there is a broader story of personal change, and multiple lessons can be drawn from it.
Graham met Ann Medlock, who at that time was founding the Giraffe Heroes Project, a nonprofit that encourages unsung heroes to tell their stories and inspire others. They married on his 40th birthday, and since that time, they have led the organization for four decades, with Graham as a motivational speaker.
Whether or not we relate to Graham’s life path, he gives an entry point into his memories so we can clearly imagine his adventures. The writing is evocative and gripping. “The sun had melted the last bits of snow off the high country trails,” and “a sap bubble exploded with a loud pop, scattering embers from our campfire into the evening sky,” and we’re right there too at Mount Rainier. We are meant to ask our own questions of how we will live and how we will tell our own stories.
Genre: Nonfiction / Memoir / Travel
Print Length: 320 pages
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