4 out of 4 stars
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Man Mission is a book about “Four men, Fifteen Years, One Epic Journey.” In it author Eytan Uliel describes testosterone-charged adventures as four men vacation together over a decade and a half. Fiji, Kauai, Thailand, Iceland, and eleven other exotic sites are the backdrop for the wanderings of the main character (who remains nameless,) along with his three ‘mates,’ Sam, Alec and Daniel.
In Man Mission, the four age-30-something men meet each year to share a “manly” adventure. The team has a mission log and a set of rules from “Go beyond your limits,” to “Bathing optional.” An award of ‘The Pink Bracelet’ goes to the one who whines the loudest. The book reads, at first, like a comic travelogue, but the reader is rapidly drawn into the private lives of the companions. As their globe trekking becomes increasingly extreme, the men share more and more of their intimate thoughts with each other. We discover that these successful men are hiding no small measure of unhappiness. It is a story about the coming of middle age.
Much of the book is devoted to the concept of freedom and its evolving meaning as the men mature. In the beginning, the boys enjoy the notion of freedom as a carefree outing, renewing their friendship with strenuous activity. After a few years, their excursions represent the freedom of leaving the office behind. Their youthful hiking, biking, and kayaking become a release from the striving for wealth and prestige. One of the wives describes the “Man Mission” at this point as the need to do increasingly stupid things. By the end of a decade, all have growing families. Their annual trek is an attempt to free themselves from the crushing stress of the provider’s role. With financial success comes the boundless freedom to travel where they please. But, material plenty does not eliminate their feeling isolated from their loved ones. The main character, in particular, believes his family demands a sacrifice of his personal freedom. The annual getaway is now an escape. In the complete collapse of one man’s marriage, he finds that he now has complete freedom. “No one cares where I am, or what I am doing,” he muses.
I liked the way the author used animal encounters to emphasize inner conflict. For instance, the fellows try swimming off a pier in Fiji. At this point, the narrator is being eaten alive with insecurity and the inability to control his life. About to do one last dive, our hero is stopped by a sizable shark, with a respectable overbite, that jumps out of the water. Likewise, during their African journey, the main character suspects his wife is losing interest in him. Their guide brings them face-to-face with a female leopard in the jungle; however, she just yawns and walks away. There are many similar instances throughout their travels.
What I liked least about the story is that the female characters were vague, serving only to people the background. The men’s children were not even given names. Although these men loved their families and were performing as outlined in their imaginary “Relationship Playbook,” they showed a serious lack of emotional intelligence. Their families existed only as a motivational force.
The author does a splendid job, however, in sculpting his main character. The nameless protagonist suffers through a fifteen-year transformation. His growing pains are palpable, as he cautiously admits his feelings to his buddies. How he eventually finds a way to release his preconceptions and find serenity in the simple joys around him will hold the reader’s attention to the end. Early in the story, an elderly Japanese man tells the four travelers the secret to a happy life, “Tell your wife, children, and friends you love them every day.” The author’s rendition of the epic journey to find the value of these words and his spectacular descriptions of the exotic locations in which the lessons are learned, is forever memorable.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The action is animated and believable. The writer’s interplay between the four friends is entirely natural, written as if he were there. Editing and proofreading were flawless. Readers should be warned in advance, though, that the book is published in a fixed format and does not lend itself to adjusting the size of the typeface. I think a likely audience would be college graduates, professional people, or anyone who has built up their own business, and the story would be equally engaging for men and women. Therefore, I give Man Mission my hardiest recommendation along with a rating of four out of four stars.
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