How 'Leopold Bloom' Shaped One Author's Odyssey In his famous novel, Ulysses, James Joyce described the adventures of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16, 1904. Today, on "Bloomsday," author Scott Huler talks about how he became intrigued by the character whose adventures inspired Joyce.
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How 'Leopold Bloom' Shaped One Author's Odyssey

How 'Leopold Bloom' Shaped One Author's Odyssey

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In his famous novel, Ulysses, James Joyce described the adventures of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16, 1904. Today, on "Bloomsday," author Scott Huler talks about how he became intrigued by the character whose adventures inspired Joyce.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is "Bloomsday." In his famous novel "Ulysses," James Joyce described the adventures of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16th, 1904, and the anniversary is celebrated around the world with parties and marathon readings. A day writer, Scott Huler remarked a few years ago with a public vow that he would never read "Ulysses."

"No, I said. No, I won't, no," he wrote, words he had to swallow within a month as his reading group took up the novel. But then as he read it he became intrigued, not so much by Bloom but by the character whose adventures inspired Joyce. Scott Huler joins us today from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Scott, nice to have you on the program again.

Mr. HULER: Neal, it's great to be here.

CONAN: And what took you from Ulysses to Odysseus?

Mr. HULER: Well, what took me from Ulysses to Odysseus was that "The Odyssey" made sense to me. I was reading "Ulysses" and sort of struggling my way through it. And my wife saw it and she knew that I was getting interested in the Homer behind it and just wondering what that was all about. So she bought me a copy of the book. And I started reading "The Odyssey" again. I thought I was going to read it again, and I found out, of course, I had never read it at all in ninth grade, like everyone else. I read a couple of CliffsNotes, I cheated on a quiz, I was done.

CONAN: That's OK, not many have read "Ulysses," and a lot of people have said they read that, too.

Mr. HULER: Right, I think so. These are like two of the world's champions, talked about but not read books. And reading "The Odyssey," I was stunned to realize that it's not meant for the ninth-graders whose throats we try to stuff it down. It's like a guide to being a middle-aged person. Where Odysseus, who's at the time of the action of "The Odyssey" in his mid-40s, he's had this junky job with this bad boss, Agamemnon. He's been fighting in this war that's based on a lie. He just wants to get home to his family. He misses his family and he's kind of sick of it.

And I thought, that sounds like middle age. That sounds like my world. I recognize that place. And so I just found in "The Odyssey" this sort of guidebook for how to face the world in the middle of your life. And I think in many ways that's what Homer had in mind.

CONAN: And what did the switch from Joyce to Homer - how did that lead to a decision to follow the route of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca?

Mr. HULER: Well, one of the things that I laughed at when I snidely made fun of Ulysses on Bloomsday is that people all over the world sort of troop to Dublin to retrace the steps of the characters of "Ulysses" or to have readings all over the country of "Ulysses." And I called it St. Patrick's Day for Mensa members. I mean, I was very snide, really not really nice.

But I was like, now that I think about it, you know, you hear about these people going to Dublin to retrace the steps of Bloom and Douglas. But you don't hear about anybody flying to Troy and then retracing the steps of Odysseus back to Ithaca. Why don't you hear about that? That's - I thought, well, all right, I'll go do that, that's what I'll do.

CONAN: Well, you could have done this in upstate New York in a couple of days.

Mr. HULER: Yes, I think that's true. I many times wished that I had chosen to do that.

CONAN: Scott Huler describes his adventures along Odysseus' long road home in a book called "No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey." If you'd like to talk with him about why and about how he found the Cyclops Cave, the Land of the Lotus-eaters and, well, Hades, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Scott Huler, like Odysseus, your journey actually began at Troy. But that's not the way you write the book.

Mr. HULER: No, that's right. I chose - I had two models here. In one sense I had Odysseus as my model. As a traveler, I followed Odysseus. I started at Troy and I made my way home to Ithaca, decidedly by the long route, the scenic route, but I just took it step by step. As a writer trying to tell the story, I eventually followed as my model Homer, which I think was a wise - he's good.

CONAN: He's good. He's got talent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HULER: If you're going to cheat, steal from the best, right? And so Homer, first of all, I was stunned when reading "The Odyssey" to note that these books, these adventures that we associate with Odysseus, the Cyclops, as you said, Scylla and Charybdus, the visit to the Land of the Dead, constitute a very small portion of "The Odyssey." They constitute about one sixth of it. Four books out of 24 total.

I was stunned to see that the first four books of "The Odyssey," Odysseus isn't even in. They are all about what's going on at home in Ithaca. They are all about where Odysseus isn't in. And his wife's in trouble, his son's in trouble. It's all this sort of cliffhanger, "Perils of Pauline" stuff, perils of Penelope, maybe. And we finally meet Odysseus on the isle of Ogygia, where he is being held in sexual captivity by the nymph Calypso, and he's sitting sadly on the beach staring off towards home and weeping.

And this is already in Book Five, and I thought, wow, this is an amazing, sort of - talk about (unintelligible), starting in the middle of things. This is - Homer has it all. We have learned nothing about how to tell a story in the past 3000 years. And so I thought, when I try to tell this story, probably that's where I should start, too. So I started on the island of Malta, which styles itself as the home of Calypso long ago.

CONAN: Well, that makes a degree of sense. It's in the middle of things, you can make an argument. And a lot of people - you're hardly the first scholar to go back and try to figure out what was Odysseus' actually route. But there are places, you point out, the first stop he makes from Troy, a place everybody knew at the time, a very real place, and then the next place - well, not so real.

Mr. HULER: Right. Exactly. One of the best parts about undertaking this project was doing the research to try to figure out where to go because it's like - I tell people, it's like walking into a cocktail party at 11 and they started arguing politics at 8, and just no way are you going to get the bottom. You just start yelling along with everybody else because it's just ridiculous argument.

On the one hand, you have these true believers who are like, well, you have to take into consideration the Matlene winds which blow at a certain time in the Mediterranean, pushing Odysseus clearly toward the south and the west and with underwater currents. Well, then Odysseus would have had to land just exactly here, and if you look at this rock from a certain angle it's obviously... And you know, these are true believers, who just know this is where Odysseus went.

And then on the other side you have people who are like, it's a poem! It's a made-up story. It's a myth. There was no Odysseus, you people are nuts. What's wrong with you? And then sort of in the middle, generally, there's an agreement that the descriptions bare traces of the Western Mediterranean, the islands to the west of Italy and that whether the - you know, the Greeks, when "The Odyssey" was being committed to language, being written down, the Greeks were exploring and settling those areas. So whether sailor stories came back and they made their way into the oral presentations of "The Odyssey" or whether they brought those Odyssey stories with them and got to the Strait of the Zenith(ph) and said, oh, obviously, the narrow strait, a cliff on one side, Scylla and Charybdus, I'm here, isn't important. It just means - we just know that for 2,500 years or more these places have been connected with "The Odyssey."

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Our guest, again, Scott Huler. His new book is "No Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey." And 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Email is talk@npr.org. Michael is on the line calling from Portland, Oregon.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello. Thank you for - what a great topic. I am completely enthralled. I like your idea that "The Odyssey" is kind of a guy in his mid-life time, but maybe if it just might work here, maybe in his kind of a mid-life crisis, he's lived the kind of jagged and cool life where he got to be with his men but he's sort of still lacking purpose, and so he has to go home, try to reestablish things with his son, kind of help him become a man.

But then the interesting thing about the book or the first true novel, if you will, is that he ends up going off with a paddle out into the desert to, you know, to take this paddle where has to find someone and then the excuse is, he'll leave home again. So he does get to get his life back, in a way, and gets his taste of home but then he leaves again for yet another adventure. So is it, you know, I mean, the myth of Greek men is, you know, they are just out there having fun. Maybe this is a momentary lapse of homewardness in the life of a pretty much...

CONAN: Well, they did call him the sacker of cities. Yeah, a man of some adventure.

MICHAEL: Yeah.

Mr. HULER: You're making a great point, that Odysseus does get to have it both ways. Don't forget, here's a guy who of his 10 years of wandering, eight of them are spent sleeping with goddesses, and he's complaining about it the whole time. For a lot of that time he's not working all that hard on getting home. He says, oh, darn, another night I have to sleep with a goddess. Poor me.

MICHAEL: Yeah, I agree with you. Depending on the translation you read because I've read two or three of these, I'm on my third, although I can't remember the author of the most recent translation, but it's the best I've read so far.

CONAN: Is that Donald(ph) Fagles?

MICHAEL: I think so, yes. Yes, I think it is. The one of those guys, (unintelligible) or whatever, who was probably the one most of us have had to suffer through, it doesn't look like he's really suffering, but as the translations get more recent it gets to be a little more tongue-in-check, or maybe I was maturing and realizing it was more tongue-in-check. I don't know which one, but I'm really...

CONAN: Well, one of the things - I did reread it several years ago, Michael, and yeah, I had read it in ninth grade, too, and seen a lot of animated movies with - well, guys with one eye in the middle of their forehead. But the thing that amazed me was the great majority of the story is told in flashback. Again, you're absolutely right, Scott. There is no new technique.

Mr. HULER: Right. Well, and that's one of the great things. A classics professor who helped me out a great deal on this pointed out to me, it is, as you say, Odysseus tells these wonderful adventure stories in flashback, which if you think of the oral tradition of this poem means that as the banquet is going on and the poet comes to sing the poem, that means he's singing to you in the first person saying, here's what I did, here's what I experience. So the listener, it's almost like the listener is in the room with Odysseus telling you these stories. It's a wonderful, immediate story traveling from mouth to ear, from mouth to ear in this just unbelievably beautiful way.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the phone call.

MICHAEL: Thank you so much for having this topic. Have a great day, gentleman.

CONAN: You, too. Our guest again is Scott Huler. His book, "No Mans Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey." This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Mike on the line, Mike with us from Brockport in New York.

Hello, Mike. Are you there? Mike has apparently found something better to do. Maybe he's off with Circes somewhere.

Mr. HULER: Mike is sleeping with a goddess.

CONAN: Yes, Joseph calling from San Antonio.

JOSEPH (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to thank you also for bringing up this subject. I'm in the U.S. Navy and I was a member of the Sixth Fleet for some years and we traveled through these places many times. We actually dry docked in Malta, and I was always really conscious on the story of Odysseus and went to see Calypso's Cave and went to the site of Messina several, several times and also take in a lot of other mythology including like the Strait of Gibraltar, which was suppose to be gate that Hercules made to get to the outside sea. And I experienced all of these things.

I also wanted to say, I think the island was actually Camino, which was part of the Maltese nation where Calypso's Cave is reputed to be. But this is a wonderful subject, and I feel validated because I always made my shipmates go to all these places with me and some of them didn't really know what I was talking about.

Mr. HULER: The island in the Maltese archipelago is actually the Island of Gozo, and the amazing about that, as you say, you went to Calypso's Cave. There is a cave and not only is there a cave but it shows up on the tourist maps, Calypso's Cave. It was so satisfying as somebody who was going place after place and saying, OK, I'm here following Odysseus and having people look at me like I was from Venus. To go someplace where I said, oh, I'm looking for Calypso's Cave and they were just like, OK, second cave on the left over there.

JOSEPH: Pretty much my experience with my shipmates.

Mr. HULER: Did you rent a bike to go up there, Joseph? That's what I did. I rented one of these tiny, not tall American-size bicycle and I was riding around like one of the clowns in the circus riding a tiny bicycle to get up there.

JOSEPH: I don't remember. I think we just walked everywhere. We met some priests there who had a house and took us for the afternoon for lunch and kind of showed us where we needed to go. And you're right. It was Gozo. Camino's(ph) the other island, the smaller island.

Mr. HULER: Right. The tiny one.

CONAN: Joseph, thanks very much for the call.

JOSEPH: You're welcome.

Mr. HULER: So long.

CONAN: Here's an email from Tim in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Maritimo in the Agatti islands, I'm not sure I'm pronouncing that right, is said to be Ithaca. I've been there and it is certainly easy to imagine. It's hugely mountainous and mostly wild with only one little village in its harbor. Did you go there?

Mr. HULER: Well, I didn't. That's just off the west coast of Sicily and that falls right into this wonderfully insane idea that the wonderful British writer Samuel Butler had, which was that "The Odyssey" was written by a young woman who never in her life left her hometown of Tropiny(ph) on the tip of western Sicily and that Homer was this young woman who told this story and based all of the episodes on things she had seen hanging around Sicily.

So it's pretty nutty but it's wonderful, and Butler is just hilarious in that. I strongly recommend to anybody that you pick up and read "The Authoress of the Odyssey" by Samuel Butler. But yes, the island Maritimo was called - Butler claims that the Island of Ithaca is based on that. I didn't go there because I didn't want to muddy the water. I decided, and it's not necessarily to everyone's taste that since I was looking for the island of Ithaca and there in western Greece there was an island called Ithaca, I was just going to ahead and say, that was good enough for me.

CONAN: Oh, you literalist, you didn't read enough Joyce.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Let me ask you, finally. One of the stops that Odysseus makes on his journey, he goes to Hades to speak with the shade of Achilles. It's sort of the book of Job of "The Odyssey," where that famous thing, I would rather be a slave in life than rule over the dead. But where do you go to find Hades?

Mr. HULER: Well, I wanted to go to the church of the Capuchin monks in Rome. There are these crypts, these underground, these beautiful underground crypts that are filled with artwork made by the bones of dead monks and it doesn't sound so beautiful but it actually is astonishingly beautiful. And so that is where I decided to go. Because I thought, you know, you're trying to justify all these places you want to go, but if you're going to go to the Land of the Dead and then you come back, your friends are going to say, you are just not telling me the truth.

So I thought, all right, I get to choose any place in this world, and I had been there once before, and it was one of the most stirring places - stirring experiences of my entire life, to be standing with all these bones. And these skeletons, they are actually full skeletons wearing Capuchin robes and holding up signs saying, as we are now you soon will be. As you are now we once were. Which is really quite straightforwardly advice from the dead, which is on how to live life and how to take your life seriously and how to think about the values that you want to uphold, which is exactly what Odysseus gets from Achilles and from his mom, who he also meets down there.

And so that's where I was going and I was so thrilled to go back there. And then when I got there it was closed for renovations and so I had this whole long, awful experience trying to get the Vatican involved getting me in and I didn't get in. I actually eventually went to the catacombs and found the dead there.

CONAN: Well, Scott Huler, thanks very much for being with us. Appreciate your time.

Mr. HULER: It was my pleasure. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Scott Huler's book, "No Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey." He joined us today from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. If you'd like to read about his adventures on the island of the nymph Calypso, you can find an excerpt on our web site at npr.org/talk. I'll be in Buffalo tomorrow to visit with the folks at WBFO. Lynn Neary will be here. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey'

by Scott Huler

'No-Man's Lands'

A Long Story

Of that versatile man, O Muse, tell me the story, how he wandered both long and far after sacking the city of holy Troy. Many were the towns he saw and many the men whose minds he knew, and many were the woes his stout heart suffered at sea as he fought to return alive with living comrades. Them he could not save, though much he longed to, for through their own thoughtless greed they died - blind fools who slaughtered the Sun's own cattle, Hyperion's herd, for food, and so by him were kept from returning. Of all these things, O goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.

Odyssey, Book I.

THINGS GO WRONG, PLANS FAIL, fate makes sport of our best intentions. We say one thing and do another; nothing turns out as we expect. It's an unpredictable life, and we comfort ourselves by blaming greater powers: "If you want to make God laugh," we say, "tell him your plans," and most modern westerners can be grateful to at least have only the one God whose laughter concerns us. Think, though, of the ancient Greeks. The Greeks had an entire pantheon of gods; the Greeks had gods like we have siblings, cousins, in-laws - and just as busy, just as nosy, too. So the ancient Greeks knew their plans could elicit laughter - and expect trouble - from not just one source but a dozen. That was the gods' favorite thing, interfering with people's plans. Or more accurately, helping people interfere with their own.

It still is, I think. So not long ago, when I briefly took to making plans, I should have been listening for that laughter. You could say I went looking for it. It began after all with a public promise - which the gods made sure I broke, almost instantly. Afterwards came a headlong journey, filled with discovery, wonder, and adventure, which seems like their kind of joke too - at least, they've been using it for a while. In the end, of course, it's a long story. You can start almost anywhere.

So start with James Joyce.

ON JUNE 15, 2001, I swore, out loud and on the radio, that I would never, ever read Ulysses.

Joyce's Ulyssesis regularly crowned the most important novel of the twentieth century. Nearly eight hundred pages long, filled with thousand-word stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences, classical references, and asides in various languages, Ulysses(the Romanized name, of course, of the Greek hero Odysseus) is considered the birth of modern literature. A modern retelling of the ten years of adventure described in the Odyssey of Homer, Ulysses takes place all on one day - June 16, 1904, in Dublin. Advertising salesman Leopold Bloom stands in for Odysseus, and the book's episodes have their origins in Homer: there's a Cyclops episode and a Sirens episode and much more, all complex and modern and hard to follow. Friends and experts had been pressing Ulysses on me for decades, but despite countless frustrating attempts I had never been able to get very far in it.

Then came the early summer of 2001, which seemed to bring an Odyssey onslaught. The movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?," the Coen brothers' free retelling of the Odysseystory, came out on DVD. Cold Mountain, the Charles Frazier novel of a reluctant soldier making his adventurous way home from a horrific war, sat on every night table and was in development as a film. When my oldest friend asked me to read something at his wedding, I was almost unsurprised when another friend recommended "Ithaca," a lovely reconsideration of the wanderings of Odysseus by poet Constantine Cavafy.

And, most especially, Bloomsday approached. Among its devotees Ulysses has become less a book than something of a cult, and the feast day for that cult is June 16, Bloomsday. All over the world on that day people read Ulysses aloud, celebrate it in drama and song, and above all, get drunk. In Dublin, Mecca for Ulyssescultists, thousands of people gather to enact scenes from the book, engage in panel discussions about the book's opacities, and actually retrace the steps of the book's characters. This outpouring of obsession towards a book I found unreadable drove me mad. After all, I'm a writer - I'm a literary guy. And I believe this obsession makes literary guys look like pseudointellectual nitwits. I wanted to distance myself from those nitwits. So in June 2001 I read a brief essay on the radio announcing that after decades of attempts I was officially declaring Joyce's book not worth the trouble: I was using that year's Bloomsday celebration to forever renounce Ulysses. The book ends with Molly Bloom's forever-quoted benedictory, "yes I said yes I will Yes." So on the day its adherents worshipfully followed the footsteps of its fictional characters, I pledged to finally consign the book to my shelf unread, echoing its conclusion: "no I said no I won't No."

I CAN'T SWEAR IT WAS THE WORK OF THE GODS, but I was a liar inside a month.

Someone who heard my essay convinced Matthew, a bookstore manager well-read in Joyciana, to lead a Ulyssesreading group. And because I had written the scornful essay that got the group started, they invited me to join. I had just publicly sworn never to read Ulyssesas long as I lived; doing exactly the opposite made for a pleasing irony. I joined up. Matthew led us through complex schema and thickets of commentary, and over four months alternated between coaxing and dragging us through Ulysses. Occasionally with Matthew's help I was thrilled by a pun in two languages, a sly classical reference; more often I complained. Challenged and interested, I still rarely doubted the good sense of my original inclination to give the book up.

And for me, most important was that the further we moved along, the less Joyce commanded my attention. Instead, I thought more and more about the Homeric tales behind it all. I grew interested in the Odyssey itself.

I couldn't help thinking: What gives? Everywhere you turn, the Odyssey - and it's not like it's something new. For 3000 years, we've been telling each other the same story. Whether it's Joyce's book or Tennyson's poems, a symphony by Max Bruch or heavy metal by Symphony X, pictures by Matisse or Chagall, we're still finding new ways to tell each other the episodes from that old story. I wondered why.

These are some of the best known episodes in the world: Odysseus defeats the Cyclops; Odysseus agonizes over the terrible decision between Scylla and Charybdis; Odysseus escapes the Sirens, who lured unwary sailors onto the rocks. I noticed, though, that I couldn't quite remember, for example, how the Sirens lured those unwary sailors. In fact, I couldn't remember a lot. I knew Odysseus poked out the eye of the Cyclops, but I couldn't say how that fit into the larger picture. Scylla and Charybdis was a hard choice, but between what, and regarding why, I was in the dark. I hadn't read the Odyssey for years, but even so I seemed to have forgotten a great deal.

My wife noticed my increasing interest in the story, and she one day saw at a flea market a little book with a jacket all of blue: a simply drawn sea, and on it, alone, a tiny yellow boat. The Odyssey of Homer, in a 1960 translation by one Ennis Rees, in a nice handbook size. It found a place on my night table, and once our reading group was done with Ulysses, I opened the Odyssey to reread it.

I COULDN'T REREAD IT - which leads to a more embarrassing reversal, though on a more intimate scale. After not very many pages and some honest consideration, I had to acknowledge that the reason I remembered so few specifics about the Odyssey was that I had never read it at all. Unfortunately, I had been brashly claiming to have done so my entire adult life.

I remember the little red version of the book I got in ninth-grade English, and I remember a color lithograph it contained of a bearded guy on a raft in a stormy sea. Seeing it on my reading list, my mother had assured me: "If you can get past the language, it really is just the greatest adventure story." The story of Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War, making his ten-year journey home from the Greek victory at Troy, the Odyssey, by the blind poet Homer, was one of the epic poems that constitute the foundation of Western Civilization. Shipwrecks, storms, monsters, witches, pretty girls, gods and goddesses, archery, treasure, swordfights - all this awaited if I could "get past the language."

No chance. Homer's classical rhythms resisted me in adolescence as fiercely as Joyce's tortured syntax did in adulthood. All I remember now from that English class is a movie we saw of part of the Odyssey, in which a man wanders among stone walls, orating the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops. Odysseus and his men, trapped in a cave by the giant Cyclops, get the Cyclops drunk and blind him, then slip past him by hanging onto the bellies of his sheep as they exit the cave. Describing it, the actor brayed like John Gielgud: "My raaam," he moaned as the Cyclops, "my faaavorite raaam," and as he stood there swaying my momentary flicker of interest - a monster! A big stick in his eye! A daring escape! - vanished beneath the tide of well-meaning dramatization meant to impress ninth-graders.

We cheated on quizzes and dawdled through class, wrote themes and moved on to whatever was next, and that was my junior high school Odyssey experience. A color lithograph, a tiresome movie, a book I didn't read. And though one collegiate summer I filled a hole in my education and read the Iliad, Homer's other masterpiece, I never returned to the Odyssey. It was checked off that giant list of books you are supposed to have read, and I never went back.

Which is too bad, because from somewhere, elements of the Odyssey definitely did become part of my life. Its content creeps into our minds through back channels, like the symphonies we learn by snatches as background music in Bugs Bunny cartoons: half-understood college lectures; popular references to the danger of "siren songs" or being "between Scylla and Charybdis"; hints of the Odyssey in poetry and popular song. The Odyssey is a classic - it's one of those books whose stories we all sort of know, from somewhere, but in most cases don't really know from anywhere.

That vague understanding can be dangerous. I told people I had read the Odyssey. I deeply believed I had read the Odyssey. I have specific memories, in post-college years, of pontificating about the admiration I had developed for Odysseus; about Athena, the goddess of wisdom who is his special protector, and how one might please her; about traveling, about home, about challenge.

Some of what I said actually made sense. For example, I compared Odysseus to other protagonists in Greek myths and plays. At least one terrible thing happens to almost all of them: Agamemnon kills his own daughter and is killed by his faithless wife; Oedipus kills his father, sleeps with his mother, pokes his eyes out; Hercules goes mad and kills his own wife and children. Theseus causes his father's suicide when he forgets to signal his own safety; Perseus kills his grandfather with a discus; Atreus invites his brother Thyestes to dinner - and feeds Thyestes his own children. That's hardly the worst of it - consider Medea: To help her lover Jason, Medea kills and dismembers her own brother and boils Jason's uncle alive; when Jason then decides - can you blame him? - to marry someone else, Medea kills Jason's bride, Jason's father, and her and Jason's own two children.

Odysseus on the other hand manages to win the decade-long Trojan War (the famous Trojan Horse is his idea). Then, overcoming unimaginable difficulties on his way home, he eventually returns to find his only son healthy and grown, his wife faithful and safe, his father overjoyed. According to at least one version of events, Odysseus lives happily ever after.

That Cyclops episode, probably his most well-known adventure, represents my conception of him perfectly. He can't match the giant bad guy physically, so he outwits him - he calls himself "No-man," so when the fighting starts and the Cyclops shouts that "No-man is killing me," his neighbors figure he doesn't need their help. The Cyclops, like most of Odysseus's enemies, ends up claiming he was cheated. Odysseus wins, but not because he's biggest; he's just the sneakiest.

Baseball fans might compare Achilles, the vain, arrogant hero of the Iliad, with someone like Ted Williams: undeniably great, but not necessarily good for the team or pleasant to be around; Agamemnon might be Ty Cobb, vicious and dangerous but hard to beat; and Menelaus something like Mickey Mantle: great and useful but something of a blowhard. Odysseus would be Pete Rose: the sneaky little bastard who pulls off some kind of trick that you think is beneath contempt, but carries the day. The guy you call a liar and a cheat - unless he's on your team. Then he's just a guy who does what it takes to win. I began to think - and more than once said out loud - that a good way to live your life was to live it as much like Odysseus as possible. I said it often enough that I began to consider it one of my life's principles.

Thus as we plowed through Ulysses I was embarrassed to notice that I didn't have more than a vague notion of exactly how Odysseus had lived his life. And then, on my night table, that gift from my wife: The Odyssey, and the chance to really read it. Leave it to your wife to make you finally find out whether you really believe what you always say you believe.

IT'S ENOUGH TO MAKE YOU BELIEVE IN THE GODS. Sure, the Odyssey is still a little long, still a little dense, and the epic poetic language does take some getting used to. Nonetheless I read it - on my own - and by the time I finished I felt the book had sought me out, that my need for the Odyssey had manifested itself and brought the book to me - "with the help of some god," as characters in Homer commonly say of remarkable occurrences. I had ignored it in the ninth grade and in my twenties blindly claimed to adopt its hero as my model. But when in my 40s I finally actually read it, the Odyssey turned out to be everything I had ignorantly imagined it might be.

First, as my mother promised all those years ago, it's a great story. But there's a lot more, too: those famous stories we all half-know turn out to constitute rather a small portion of the whole - about four chapter-length books out of 24 total. And the remainder, the parts of the Odyssey nobody talks much about - the wanderings of Odysseus's son, Telemachus; the struggles of Odysseus's clever wife, Penelope; the challenges that await Odysseus when he finally returns home - have a resonance I never imagined. A funny thing about the difference between 14 years old and 44: This time the Odyssey spoke to me. This time I got the language. This time I couldn't let it go.

Episodes to which I had been referring for decades suddenly made sense - and stories whose fatuous morals I thought I knew (Rely on your wits, not brute strength! Choose carefully among difficult alternatives! Don't seek to know more than is good for you!) turned out to have unexpected depth and complexity. Moreover, Odysseus spends a lot of time - a lot of time - in this book sleeping with goddesses.

This book got my interest. This was a book worth more than a simple reading. This was a book, at long last, worth the return. I read it again, then again. I came to see the passage of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca as a metaphor, a series of adventures in which Odysseus demonstrates what he needs to learn - or unlearn - to live his life. The Odyssey became the book I carried around, dipping into in spare moments - while the car got an oil change; in the waiting room for the eye doctor; for a few minutes before sleep. I had a handbook: The oldest lessons in the world were still the lessons I needed to learn - and they were still waiting for me in the Odyssey. During those post-college years when I claimed Odysseus as my role model, I had been right. I hadn't known what I was talking about, but I had been right.

So Joyce's impossible Ulysses had done me a favor: Homer wrote down the Odyssey nearly 3000 years ago, and we've been constantly retelling it ever since, but I had still managed to miss it. Only by squaring off opposite Ulysses did I stumble my way back to the original, central story. It was the Odyssey, not Ulysses, that had something for me.

STILL, I DID PILFER ONE IMPORTANT IDEA from the Ulysses community: pilgrimage. Like opera buffs or "Star Wars" fans at a premiere, members of an entire subculture find in Ulyssesa binding element for their lives. Its stories become central to them, known by heart and repeated, studied, appreciated. Ulysses serves as a lodestone text to which they return time and again for understanding.

And Ulysses fans return to more than just their book. Driven by obsession, they return, year after year, to Dublin itself, approaching Dublin as pilgrims, visiting its sites as shrines - going where Bloom went to see what Bloom saw, to learn what Bloom learned. Visiting the sites of the stories in Ulysses brings those stories home, gives them life and substance beyond the book. Through their travel these pilgrims thus go beyond merely reading Ulysses - in this small way they live it, and by connecting it physically to their world make it somehow even more their own.

Thousands of them do this every year.

Somewhere deep inside my brain, this started a train of thought. I wondered: Why don't I do the same? As I read and reread the Odyssey, as I returned to certain passages over and over, gleaning more each time, the Odyssey began to genuinely occupy the central metaphorical position in my life I had once claimed it did. So I thought: Why shouldn't I visit my sacred sites as the Joyceans do theirs? Whom would I meet? What would I find? Why don't I go to Troy, where Odysseus finished the Trojan War, and make my way to Ithaca, the western Greek island Odysseus called home?

I wanted to go where Odysseus went, to learn what Odysseus learned.

THE MORE I THOUGHT ABOUT IT THE MORE SENSE IT MADE. For one thing, the timing was right. Odysseus leaves for the Trojan War when he's a young father. He stays at Troy for a decade fighting, and after the war spends another decade making his way home, arriving presumably in his mid-forties. That's when the Odyssey is set - Odysseus tells the adventure stories largely in flashback. That is, at the time of the action of the Odyssey, Odysseus is my age.

Since we were the same age, I found comparison natural. Here's Odysseus at around 44: He has a grown son. He has won the greatest war of all time. Then, overcoming unimaginable perils, he has traveled not only the known world but the unknown, outfoxing monsters and bedding goddesses, makng his way home to defeat a palace full of murderous rivals, reestablishing command of his island kingdom. Not bad. Okay, here's me: I had paid off my student loans. I had been employed significantly more than I had not. I had a failed marriage, though prospects for the second one looked pretty good. I knew that pouring gas in the carburetor will sometimes get a balky lawnmower to start. I had nursed 14 years out of a pickup truck. I can hang a ceiling fan, build closet shelves, throw darts well enough to win a wall plaque. Interesting, but looking around me I saw no kingdom; in the rearview mirror I saw no enraged monsters, vanquished by my hand, screaming for vengeance; in memory, depressingly few goddesses demanded my sexual favors.

Of course, I blame circumstances; my lack of heroic stature is not entirely my fault. After all, I lack heroic milieu. Despite war, global warming, terrorism, and a host of other troubles, for American suburbanites challenge is generally lacking. A big adventure means going camping and not bringing the cell phone; when we talk about challenge we mean life without cable, a broken air conditioner, going out to get an ink cartridge and having to drive to two stores.

So you can't blame me for wondering: Is that all there is? I mean, worship youth all you want, remain youthful through diet, exercise, surgery, prayer. But whatever you do, by the time you hit your mid-40s, you're slowing down, and you've got to start approaching your life differently, shortening your batting stroke. Looking in the mirror at that guy hitting Odysseus's age and heading for decline, I had to figure: It's now or never. You want adventure? Time is getting short.

So perhaps my most powerful motive as I considered the Odyssey was simple: existential fear. I wasn't ready to be done adventuring, so the idea of retracing the route Odysseus took quickly began to feel inevitable: One last heroic, Joseph Campbell-style adventure to mark the passing of my adventuring years. In fact, Odysseus returns home so exhausted, so sick of war, so weary of travel and excitement that he hopes to never leave home again - a state of mind I couldn't imagine, but that I deeply envied. Wouldn't it be grand to feel so complete, so finished? I aspired to even a tiny piece of Odysseus's weariness, his gladness to be through with adventure, to be home at last. All I needed was a trip all over the known world and beyond.

OR A JOURNEY AROUND THE MEDITERRANEAN might work. For one thing, after several peripatetic years, my wife, June, and I had returned to our home and were just getting our lives organized; a big trip-sized lacuna could still probably find its way into my schedule. For another, I was no stranger to long journeys. A year abroad in college had taught me the rudiments of unscheduled backpack travel: creativity in sleeping arrangements, reliance on street-vendor food, and a willingness to try and make myself understood in a language unknown to me. Perhaps as a result, a lifetime of semi-planned travel - backpack, floppy hat, hiking boots, and all - has ensued. At 44 and married, I had to figure that kind of travel, too, was unlikely to remain part of my world much longer.

So one more trip sounded like a grand last hurrah. I was owning my middle age. Instead of chasing secretaries or sports cars, I had found a better rite of passage. My old hero Odysseus and I would have a season together, and after that - well, after that I'd worry about what came next. Moreover, a trip is always a trip: You can choose where to begin, but you can't choose where, when, or how it will end and what you will find on the way. That's probably the moral of the Odyssey- as any competent ninth-grader could tell you - but as I pieced together my trip I failed to see it. Maybe I shouldn't have cheated on all those quizzes.

I sketched it out: For several months I'd haunt libraries, finding what I could about the route Odysseus took. In a considered, organized fashion I'd contact classicists, archaeologists, translators. I'd learn a few words of a few languages, make reservations. I'd load up on maps and Euros and then, prepared, I'd set out in the wake of Odysseus. I had a plan.

ANOTHER PLAN - only this wasn't a mere claim about a book, this was an entire campaign, so you know what comes next. In this case it took less than a week.

One morning I mulled things over, lying in a pile of laundry on our bed. For how many months should I explore the libraries? People had been speculating on the route of Odysseus for millennia, with no consensus; from the arguments and suggestions, how ought I to choose my destinations? What experts might be able to help me find my way? What time of year ought I to travel the Mediterranean? How much time ought I to spend? What to bring?

Lost in thought, I cogitated until I became aware of a presence in the doorway. June stood there, a small smile on her lips. In her hand a pink plastic stick about the length of a thermometer, held in a towel. A pregnancy test.

"What do you think?" my wife asked me.

"Do both of those stripes look pink to you?"

WE MADE A BUNCH OF DECISIONS QUICK. June had supported the trip from the start, and she had no interest in saddling our unborn child with the blame for a change in plans: we never even considered canceling the trip. In fact, impending fatherhood made the journey feel even more important. Still - you can't plan for surprise, and nobody wanted me out wandering the planet when June had our baby. The rank of calendar pages for my adventure, stretching gracefully into the limitless future, suddenly accordianed down. I could still retrace Odysseus's adventures of twenty years.

I just had six months to do it.

Reprinted from NO-MAN'S LANDS: One Man's Odyssey Through The Odyssey, copyright © 2008 by Scott Huler. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.