What does it mean to be a writer? Not everyone has the skill, imagination or perseverance to pursue that much-admired profession. But the late Charles W. Gusewelle had these qualities in abundance.
Perhaps best known as a longtime columnist with “The Kansas City Star,” Gusewelle — who died in November at age 83 — also contributed to such prestigious publications as “Harper’s Magazine” and the “Paris Review.” His journalism and fiction were distinguished by the kind of precision and clarity that delights appreciators of fine prose.
“Outbound: A Lifetime’s Adventures in Journalism” is Gusewelle’s parting gift. In “The Star” last year, he described the book — which he invited his readers to help crowdfund — as a collection of “in-depth articles and short works of fiction.” The emphasis is on the latter: eight of the 12 pieces are short stories.
That might come as a surprise to some of Gusewelle’s readers. His reputation was largely built on his dispatches from far-flung places as a foreign correspondent for “The Star” — splendidly represented by “Listening to the Middle East,” a chronicle of time spent in that region of the world, and “A Great Current,” an account of adventures along the Lena River in Siberia.
But Gusewelle’s fiction also compels interest. “Horst Wessel” gets off to an intriguing start with this grabber of a paragraph:
“I am not a lucky traveler. Business has taken me often to the far parts of the world and on these journeys I have made it unhappy practice to fall ill in the place I am visiting. This time it is nothing more sensational than an infected tooth, and in so prosaic a place as Bad Godesberg.”
Arguably, the highlight of the collection is “The Fragility of Skepticism,” a vivid nonfiction account of Gusewelle’s involvement in the search for a mysterious creature not unlike Bigfoot on the outskirts of Murphysboro, Illinois, in 1973. Subtitled “A Report of the Mud Camp Expedition,” the piece includes the kind of detail required to bolster the verisimilitude of the narrative:
“At a distance of two hundred or so yards from the tents, we came upon a part of the lowland forest that had suffered a peculiar sort of violence. In a roughly circular area some twenty feet across, every tree had been bent, torn apart at its branchings, or entirely broken off. Not chewed off; broken, as you might snap a wooden pencil . . .
“Some of the saplings had been snapped two or three feet from the ground, some a good deal higher. Can you imagine the strength required simply to lay hold of a living three-inch tree and break it off at face level?
“No freak wind had done that, for the night had been uncommonly still.”
In an era in which the longstanding literary values of accuracy and eloquence seem to be slipping away as online sloppiness and fraud proliferates, books such as “Outbound” serve as bastions of old-school integrity. And for fans of Gusewelle, it’s a must-read.