The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers, By Eric Hansen, Pantheon, 240pp, $24
Having great material is only one piece of making a good book. The other piece is knowing what to do with it. In Eric Hansen's new book, the two come together for a wonderful and satisfying read.
"The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer" is a first-person account of the author's adventures around the world, and it is inherently dramatic stuff. Hansen survives a cyclone while on a fishing boat off the coast of Australia. He undertakes a dangerous journey in a Borneo rain forest to help a grieving husband look for his wife's lost engagement ring after she is killed in a plane crash. In Calcutta, he works at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying and Destitute. In a drug-infested apartment house in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, he learns to make blini and piroshki with the elderly Russian woman who became the New York City Ballet's favorite Russian cook.
This is a lot of adventure for even an intrepid traveler like Hansen, whose earlier books include accounts of being shipwrecked and rescued by smugglers. True, the author draws from 25 years' worth of exploring the globe for his newest book. Still, it is obvious that Hansen has a knack for meeting interesting people and getting himself into unusual -- to put it mildly -- situations.
A less confident writer might emphasize this talent, but Hansen displays no trace of "Hey, look at me, I must be an interesting person since these things are happening to me," the tendency that shows up in far too many memoirs and travel books. The title story follows a group of strippers and Oliver Sparrow, the middle-aged wildlife biologist who watches them dance by night, and takes them bird-watching by day. Sparrow confides to Hansen, "I sometimes help them go shopping for outfits for the club, but I think my real value is that I can sit quietly and listen to them when they need someone to talk to. Their lives are pretty complicated."
There must be something in Hansen that allows people to invite him along into their lives and reveal themselves to him, but it is left to the reader to draw this conclusion. Whether Hansen sees himself as remarkable -- and he well may -- the impression he gives on the page is not, "Look at me," but, "Look at this." It is the sense that he has found something he simply must share with the reader.
What he must share is by turns revealing, enlightening, and just plain fabulous fun. "Life in the Grand Hotel" begins with Hansen's tale of surviving Cyclone Tracey while working on a prawn trawler. Fishing and the cyclone make only a brief appearance, however. Instead, the heart of the story is what happens after the cyclone, when Hansen goes to Thursday Island, off the northeast coast of Australia. On his first evening at the island's Grand Hotel, he meets several locals, including the reigning women's fist-fighting champion. "It is difficult to pinpoint the highlight of that evening," he writes, "but I would guess it was probably the sight of a man spitting his flaming dentures off the end of the wharf, as he tried to teach me how to blow fireballs with a mouthful of kerosene and a burning newspaper."
Hansen decides to leave the fishing boat and stay on. "I recognized a rare opportunity," he writes. "Seldom does one have the chance to enjoy the company of people who have so completely given themselves over to the cultivation of the low life in such style and with such gusto. They had elevated this sort of behavior to an art form and I wanted to be part of it."
He becomes the maintenance carpenter at the Grand Hotel. His job? "To get up each morning and repair the damage caused the previous night by the patrons of the public bar," he writes. "With the shattered windows, doors wrenched off their hinges, vandalized toilet stalls, and miscellaneous damage from fistfights and late-night break-ins, I often found myself hard-pressed to have the place in reasonable order each day before the next onslaught began at noontime."
This excerpt makes the book sound like an action-packed, South Pacific version of a Wild West show. Hansen, however, has an equal talent for finding the story in less obviously compelling subjects.
One is Madame Zoya, whose Russian home cooking brings her the devotion of actress Grace Kelly, choreographer George Balanchine, and the entire staff of the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Hansen paints a beautiful portrait of a woman who takes the bus to shop for ingredients, and, at her 3-foot-wide kitchen table, prepares dishes to feed hundreds. One of her at-home parties takes place in the midst of a shootout in her lobby. FBI agents have to escort her guests in fur coats through the basement to avoid the dead body, and they wind up staying on for champagne and dancing.
Hansen just retells her story, but he does it so well, it's hard to remember he wasn't there.
Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer in Wellfleet.