WALKING WITH SAM: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain, by Andrew McCarthy
The ’80s are back. Depeche Mode just dropped a new album, the Cure will play Madison Square Garden next month, and I swear I saw a popped collar on the train last week.
So sure, why not read a memoir by the former teen idol Andrew McCarthy — star of the classic Brat Pack movies “Pretty in Pink” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” — about a long walk he took with his 19-year-old son across Spain?
Nostalgia is as good a reason as any to pick up “Walking With Sam,” McCarthy’s new book about the pair’s father-son pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in the summer of 2021. Nostalgia, after all, was one of the factors that propelled McCarthy to propose this trip in the first place: A quarter century earlier, at loose ends in his personal and professional lives and inspired by a book about somebody else’s Camino walk (Jack Hitt’s “Off the Road”), McCarthy flew to Spain and made the trek on his own.
It was a life-changing experience. Although he was the last Brat Pack actor you’d expect to have a long dark night of the soul, McCarthy had recently overcome a drinking problem and was aging out of the kind of roles that had made him famous. He struggled with impostor syndrome; his success had come so early and so easily that he wasn’t sure he was worthy. Walking the Camino taught him he had unsuspected reserves of resilience and determination. So when his son Sam took him up on the offer to repeat the journey, McCarthy was delighted.
It’s a good setup for a travel memoir, ripe with opportunities to revisit the past and measure his own faded youth against the full flourishing of his son’s young adulthood. And McCarthy — who wrote about his Brat Pack years in a previous memoir and has established a respectable second career as a travel writer — makes the most of them.
The book’s structure follows the path of the Camino, with a chapter per day over the course of the pilgrimage’s five weeks or so; as such, it recreates the loping, pleasant rhythm of the trail. Along with potted guidebook history lessons, it also establishes a gradual sense of community and camaraderie among the other walkers they encounter, and paints a clear picture of McCarthy as somebody exceedingly in touch with his feelings. (“Emotional availability,” he calls it when Sam accuses him of being sentimental.) He muses about his failed marriage to Sam’s mother, and his current marriage to the mother of his two younger children. He reflects on his father’s rages and how they drove McCarthy away as a boy. Raised Catholic, he duly notes the pilgrimage’s churchly roots but evinces little religious impulse himself.
But if McCarthy is an open book, his son remains an enigma throughout. A talented and successful actor in his own right, who suffered his first major heartbreak just before the pilgrimage, Sam stalks through these pages wearing earbuds and muttering gnomic pronouncements punctuated by “yo” or “dude” or “chill.”
Some of this is surely a function of his age, and some of it a function of McCarthy’s desire to protect his son’s privacy. But it makes Sam a singularly frustrating travel companion at times, for his father as much as the reader. (It seems notable that in a group photo taken with some of the pilgrims they met, McCarthy and Sam are at opposite corners, as far apart as possible without leaving the frame.) When Sam does burst forth with the odd revelation or epiphany, it strikes even McCarthy as “both wise and banal.” The cumulative effect of all these bromides — emphasis on “bro” — is to give the book a feeling at times of cheap talk-show philosophy: Tuesdays With Maury Povich.
But it’s hard to hold that against a 19-year-old. And the book, after all, isn’t titled “Talking With Sam.” The walk is the thing. Sometimes physical togetherness and shared experiences are the most you can ask for in a relationship, and there are lovely examples of both here. In one scene the doting McCarthy realizes Sam is suffering from a sugar crash, and offers him a protein bar he’s been saving for just such a moment. “I reach out and rub his shoulder,” McCarthy writes. “He nods softly, gratefully. We sit together in the gutter as thousands upon thousands of dandelion puffs, backlit by the evening sun, float in the air like dancing diamonds.”
I once heard a Catholic bishop compare pilgrimages to art and poetry — as instances of beauty that can put us in touch with the sacred. At moments like this one, it’s easy to see what he meant.
Gregory Cowles is senior editor of the Books desk and poetry editor of the Book Review.
WALKING WITH SAM: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain | By Andrew McCarthy | Illustrated | 256 pp. | Grand Central Publishing | $28