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Sebastian Junger Tackles The Idea Of 'Freedom' But Arrives At No Conclusion

<em>Freedom,</em> by Sebastian Junger
Simon & Schuster
Freedom, by Sebastian Junger

If you ask 100 Americans how they define freedom, you'll get 100 different answers — and there might be fewer similarities than you'd think.

The concept seems simple enough, but there are so many competing values and priorities in our polarized political climate that reaching anything approaching a consensus seems impossible.

In his new book, journalist and The Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger tackles the idea of freedom, seeking to understand what we really mean when we use the word. It's an odd, rambling book that doesn't really arrive at a conclusion, and at times seems unsure what questions it's asking in the first place.

Freedom follows Junger and a group of acquaintances as they embark on a long walk from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh, following railroad lines. "If you had to cross a chunk of America without anyone knowing ... you'd do well to choose the kind of railroad lines that run up the Juniata [River]," he explains. They spend much of their journey trying to evade police and railroad company employees, who didn't want them near the tracks, "which is understandable. In fact, over the course of four hundred miles, we failed to come up with a single moral or legal justification for what we were doing other than the dilute principle that we weren't causing harm so we should be able to keep doing it."

Interspersed with Junger's travelogue are the author's ruminations on a variety of disparate subjects: Native American history, the Taliban, railroad building, and others. The juxtaposition of memoir and Junger's peregrinations is meant, it seems, to provide a framework by which we might understand the concept of freedom better.

The results aren't great. Early in the book, he asserts, not incorrectly, that "walking is the single cheapest, most reliable way of traveling without others knowing." He offers Daniel Boone as an example, before segueing first to escaped 19th-century slaves, then the Trail of Tears, then Mesopotamian hunters, then Cain and Abel, then Genghis Khan. A couple of pages later, he writes about a man that he encounters on the walk who's traveling by foot three miles to sell a box turtle to a pet store. "Was he more or less free than people who work all day to make payments on a car every month?" Junger asks.

All of that takes place over 11 pages filled with jarring transitions, culminating in a bizarre hypothetical question. It's difficult to follow Junger's train of thought; the effect is like listening to a lecturer who has forgotten his notes to a TED Talk and is clearly just winging it.

The rest of the book plays out much the same way, with Junger discussing a variety of subjects at variable length, cutting back to the story of his walk with his acquaintances (whom Junger never names or describes much at all), then back to more random topics, most of which are hypermasculine in nature.

Much of Freedom is inflected with a kind of tough-guy bravado. In one section, Junger recalls hearing several gunshots during the walk, apparently aimed over his and his friends' heads. Junger makes sure the reader knows he wasn't scared: "I didn't think the guy with the gun would come back, but even if he did, he'd have a fifty-pound mix-breed coming at him through the underbrush in the dark and then us after; forget it." It's the kind of Hemingwayesque swagger that tends to wear thin pretty quickly.

Junger does make some solid observations along the way: "The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing," he writes at one point. But many of his assertions are, to put it mildly, bizarre. When discussing the success of women participating in a mill strike in the face of armed police officers who declined to attack them, he writes, "Rightly or wrongly, society tends to value women's survival more than men's, and that makes machine-gunning them problematic." It's not clear what he means by "society" here, and regardless, the first part of that sentence will surely come as a surprise to women — particularly women of color — whose deaths from genocide, domestic violence and sexist healthcare disparities have historically been greeted with a shrug by our profoundly misogynistic culture.

Freedom remains an inexplicable book until the last page, when Junger discloses a personal circumstance — his first really human moment of the book — that illuminates, obliquely, why he set off on his voyage in the first place. It's disarming, and it only lasts an instant, but it suggests what this book could have been had he approached it with even a slight sense of vulnerability.

But that's not the book he wrote. What Junger has given us is unfocused, half-baked, a non-answer in search of a non-question.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.