A Review of Clifford Garstang’s Oliver’s Travels by Christina Chiu

Ollie Tucker is a recent college graduate who finds his way to teaching at a small community college in rural Virginia not far from where his divorced, alcoholic mother now lives. With a background in Western philosophy, he is obsessed with the truth, especially in his own life as a somewhat cisgendered-identifying male struggling with his attraction to other men. To his mind, there must be a reason for this because anything that threatens his heterosexual identity must be rooted in darkness or perversion. Ollie eventually sets off on a journey to find his Uncle in hopes of finding the truth. Before doing so, however, he tries his hand at writing. In the novel he writes, his alter-ego, Oliver, explores and has freedom he himself has never afforded himself.

Readers often have the notion that characters need to be likable. Oliver’s Travels quickly dispels that idea. Oliver is unlikeable but interesting. He marries his girlfriend despite the fact that they aren’t compatible—none of their friends show for the wedding—and from his internal dialogue, the reader knows he doesn’t actually like her. He never tells her his secret, nor does he tell her the truth about why he—now they—are suddenly traipsing half way across the globe to Singapore: Scotty is there.

Or, as it turns out, perhaps not. Ollie ends up on something of a wild goose chase that takes to different countries and continents. Having used the the pretense of “adventure” for going abroad in the first place, Ollie gets caught in the lie, and in order to continue his search, he has to manipulate his wife. Like a true narcissist, he gaslights and gifts his wife a trip to Japan solely because that is what he wants.

A nod to Gullivers Travels, the male, white protagonist journeys to other lands seeking adventure, which he fails to find at home. Swift used misogyny as a means of satire, and since satire is dead for the moment, Garstang provides a commentary about a “charity less” society and culture that revolves mostly around movie-going, one in which misogyny and violence toward women proliferate. Western philosophical thought is built on the premise that “worth” is dependent on “meaning” and “truth”; thus creating a hierarchy of what should be more or less valued. We’ve seen such delineations in art. In a discussion with Mary, Ollie argues: “Pollock through abstract expressionism is seeking a truth, making a statement about the nature of art itself, and therefor about life...Warhol with pop arts representationalism, is merely ironic... It captures reality without actually saying anything about it, and is therefore built on a lie.”

When Mary tunes out and he complains, “You weren’t listening,” she responds as many women, sick of being mansplained, do now: “No, I was listening...You just weren’t saying anything...You think I’m stupid because I believe in romance. Because it makes me cry.”

While Ollie insists Warhol’s work “doesn’t mean anything,” Mary argues that Warhol’s work “killed the Pollocks and the Rothkos and all the other pretentious men, almost all of them men, by the way, who tried to force us to see the world through their cracked lenses. Pop art gave us a new lens, a fresh way of looking at things.”

The point Mary makes is that something doesn’t need to have “meaning” to have worth. “It just is,” she said.

The reader can accept that they are entitled to their own opinions when the stakes are relatively low in a philosophical discussion about art, but what happens when Western philosophy, dictated by white men, gets imposed on a diversifying society in which women and others are supposedly “equal”? When a student of Mary’s confides in her about being raped, Ollie insists the “right” thing to do is is to go to the police. He is unwilling to to acknowledge that it is a lose/lose situation for the student even though he recognizes the burden of proof is on her, and in fact, she has no proof. Mary was not with her when it happened; it’s her word against the perpetrators. “So how can you be so sure of what happened?” He insists.

Of course, the situation relates to his own. Ollie believes he has been sexually abused by his Uncle Scotty, and he knows he won’t be believed. There is no proof unless he can find it.

Ultimately, Oliver’s Travels reveals the legacy of violence—in this case Ollie’s father’s abuse toward the women in his life—and how trauma bears out in a family’s psyche, warps our memories, and ultimately, the truth.

Christina Chiu is the Grand Prize Winner of the James Alan McPherson Award for her novel Beauty, which was also selected as a Kirkus Best Books of 2020. She is also author of Troublemaker and Other Saints, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Troublemaker was a nominee for the Stephen Crane First Fiction Award and winner of the Asian American Literary Award. Chiu’s stories appear in journals and anthologies including Tin HouseThe New Guard, Washington Square, The MacGuffin, Charlie Chan is Dead 2Not the Only OneWashington Square; she has won literary prizes from Playboy, New Stone Circle, El Dorado Writers’ Guild, The APA Journal: “In the Heart.” Her story “Waves” was nominated for the Pushcart. Her essays appear in Electric Literature, Next Tribe, and Publisher’s Weekly. Chiu received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University where she was the recipient of the Claire Woolrich Scholarship. Chiu has also received fellowships from the Ronna Jaffe Foundation, the Lannon Foundation, and is the recipient of the Van Lier Fellowship.