Picks and Pans Review: Come Hell on High Water

updated 01/12/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Gregory Jaynes

Gifted writers in the throes of midlife crises are good bets to churn out entertaining books. Cranky, cynical Gregory Jaynes proves the point nicely in this dyspeptic little travelogue aptly subtitled A Really Sullen Memoir.

Feeling unsettled and "devalued, like a peso," the 47-year-old Jaynes, a veteran newspaperman and former writer for TIME and LIFE, nixed therapy in favor of a four-month, around-the-world voyage aboard a Russian icebreaker converted into a 20,000-ton cargo ship. Bad idea: The Russian crew is dour, the surly chef can't cook, and, worst of all, Jaynes's 11 fellow passengers are infinitely less witty than he. That forces our acerbic anti-hero to amuse himself, which he does mainly by making rude observations. Three zaftig Russian stewardesses, he writes, "have a combined weight I would estimate at forty-two pounds less than the Chrysler Building."

Never mind that nothing much happens during Jaynes's journey: His gorgeous writing redeems the most banal events (a dinner squabble between warring retirees is comedically rendered into high drama). And while some may find the author too much of a smart aleck, others will appreciate the brutal candor he employs in examining his own flaws: He loves his wife, for instance, but frankly admits, "I don't feel like being married." Of all those aboard his floating crucible, however, Jaynes reserves his harshest comments for the man he gets to know best—himself. (North Point, $23)

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