By Negley Farson
A Book Review by David Alexander
(Appeared in Insider’s Guide to Books / Fang Duff Kahn / March, 2009)
The Way of a Transgressor is on my personal list of must-reads not because it’s superbly well written or particularly relevant to our time but because it is without a doubt that rare, one-of-a-kind monument that, like Mount Rushmore, has an important and transcendent appeal. The writing, which sometimes rises to surprising poetic heights brushed onto the page with the deft strokes of a master colorist, is at other times mundane, the stuff of diary entries and old journalistic writings bound together for continuity. Its one all-transcendent saving grace is that Farson wrote it as he lived it, and, given the panoramic scope of his life, that is an achievement few other authors can match or surpass. You’ve heard the expression, “You can’t make this up”? Well, whoever coined it might have been thinking of Farson’s book. In short, this is reality, long before reality hit the tube; it’s extreme, way before extreme was similarly cellophane-wrapped like a spicy supermarket burrito.
Part biography, part travelogue, and part history, the book chronicles the life of its author from late childhood at the turn of the twentieth century to its conclusion in the early 1930s. Its locales span turn-of-the-century Chicago; Russia immediately before, during, and right after the Bolshevik Revolution; Egypt in World War I; and a two-year idyll in the still-unspoiled backwoods of British Columbia. It effectively concludes with an astounding odyssey on a twenty-six-foot, two-and-a-half-ton yawl, dubbed “Flame,” sailing from the Lower Rhine in Holland to the Black Sea coast of Romania -- a trip that took Farson and his wife, Eve, three thousand miles across Europe in an era without GPS, sonar, maritime radar, and apparently without even a long-range radio aboard -- inland along rivers passing through countries already benighted in the gathering darkness of Nazism and Fascism. There’s more beyond this, including a sojourn amid the moors and lochs of the Scottish Shetlands, travels in Ireland, and an engrossing narrative about a trip from London to India to interview Gandhi notable for its descriptions of the perils and pleasures of early commercial air travel, as well as Farson’s emotionally charged return to Russia, in 1928. The Way of a Trangressor begins to steamroll with an account of Farson’s escapades in pre-revolutionary Russia in the approximate half decade preceding and encompassing the start of World War I. Based in St. Petersburg, he was one of many expatriate American and British entrepreneurs bent on making their fortunes in a hospitable foreign country that, like many of its European neighbors, was already in the process of building its military capacity to fight the next big land war on the continent. As war broke out, Farson and like-minded operators from the U.S. and Great Britain were pumping arms and war materiel to the Czarist army as fast as shiploads of it could dock. Farson’s counterparts were doing the same in Germany, Austria, France, and Italy -- the other contenders in the Great War prior to the entry of the U.S. According to Farson, in the months prior to the outbreak of war, “half the U.S. had gone overseas,” an exaggeration that’s close to the truth, in that staggering numbers of Americans had moved to Europe and would form the core of an expatriate community that was later to give rise to the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s.
Farson, who had befriended American Communist and Russophile journalist John Reed, was present at the birth of the Russian Revolution, watching it coalesce as strikes and marches materialized into a rampage of violence by the Russian working and peasant classes. Also compelling is Farson’s account of joining the British Royal Air Force after being declared medically unfit to serve with U.S. forces. Farson is sometimes strained in his attempts to fashion himself in the mold of a Hemingwayesque antihero. But his earliest period was one in which he was, in fact, acting out -- or trying to act out -- some sort of prototypical Jazz Age role as tragic icon, which, by the time of Transgressor’s appearance, in 1936, wouldn’t have been a bad gimmick, considering the commercial success of works by Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
The first quarter of the book, chronicling Farson’s early adulthood, is considerably different from its latter portions, but, then, so apparently is the author, whose crash over an airfield in Egypt -- the result of a dumb-ass stunt performed as a callow young flier pushing a Nieuport trainer far beyond the aircraft’s known performance limits in order to show off -- marked a turning point in his life. Farson broke numerous bones in his body and, in particular, shattered his already damaged right leg. Through poor treatment and lack of modern antibiotics, he was left with a chronically recurring bone condition that plagued him for the rest of his life. As Farson puts it, “Before the accident it was all about brawn. Afterward it was brain that mattered.”
The story of how Farson was forced to undergo painful operations in odd corners of the earth figures strongly in the latter part of the book. In some ways, it also serves as a key to understanding its title. Though he never says it outright, Farson’s transgression seems linked to his injuries -- part of an early life lived large but recklessly -- for which he paid in later decades with what he estimates as some three years total spent in hospital beds recuperating from their consequences. Another transgression is Farson’s loss of the small fortune he made in his early Russian days -- and of the plush-upholstered life it might have continued to make possible after he’d left the country. But the “Way” part of the title says that if Farson is a mutinous existential renegade to at least certain aspects of the System, he’s content to have lived his life as such.
Today, this might not exactly sound like the outer limits, but in the mid-1930s, Farson’s story of going from expatriate high roller in Russia to expatriate flier for the RAF in Egypt to reclusive backwoods-cabin dweller in Canada to high-powered Mack-truck salesman in Chicago -- and then back to expatriate, drop-out sailor, and on to become a game-legged, globe-trotting feature writer for the Chicago Daily News -- makes him sound a little like Marco Polo with some fashionable psychiatric disorder. Since today they make you swallow Prozac for wanting to do many of the things Farson lived to experience, reading the admittedly sometimes rambling The Way of a Transgressor might be what some sufferers need to toss the antidepressants and exchange reality TV for reality itself.