Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner & Andy Fitch
Reviewed by STEPHEN KARL

Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010
Ever tried Twitter? Me neither. Hemingway? If so, then the staccato flair of Ten Walks/Two Talks will have appeal – minus the machismo…and the bullfights.  Verbal sparring, however, it does have, and when that back-and-forth, peripatetic dialogue (which comprises half the book, or the two talks), is read alongside the productive and proficient observations of the ten independent walks, a question arises: Are we better off alone?

The answer is no, at least not all the time.  But certainly in Ten Walks/Two Talks it seems that the function of another person is to provide comfort; and more often than not, the matter of conversing leads to a conformity of opinion, if an opinion is ever reached.  In this case, the two talks may be beautifully organic, but the meandering and truncated flow mostly finds endings in interruption or change of topic rather than proffering answers to life’s questions.  If there’s a teaching point, sometimes it’s best to shut up and listen. 

The ten singular walks, on the other hand, end neatly with punctuated observations of life being lived. On page 52 of the chapter Late Spring the author writes, “After more bad job news and predawn insomnia I wanted to know this world with me walking through it…”  It is this cherishing of the moment that makes the reader pause and consider the daily minutiae of one’s own life, the sights, sounds and smells that exist all around the big city and shape our memories, or as Dickens wrote, “…think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns of flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

Yet the idea of another person providing comfort should not be dismissed. It is the balance that matters.  On page 78, in the chapter Late Winter, the ease at which the conversation in the second talk drifts from one’s first oral sex experience to the changing flavor of a spicy tea to existential thoughts about ‘non’-expiring subway passes shows a sense of relaxation only bouncing topics off another warm body can provide.  We call it justification, and sometimes it’s all we’re looking for.  Being alone can lead to constant analysis and sometimes self-doubt, as on page 56, the chapter Late Spring, when at the start of Friday’s walk, passing the playground “I was thinking whoever fired my brother was a total prick, hoping my mom felt no whiplash after getting rear-ended last night, wondering if I’ve strayed too far from grounded pessimism or if I’m just less afraid of failure…One stray daffodil got me thinking Shouldn’t I love this?  Isn’t this what I am? But it grew boring to be so metaphoric.” 

Ultimately, Ten Walks/Two Talks is a few things.  It is a reminder that to stop and smell the roses is a cliché for a reason: we should do it; they smell nice.  It is a reminder that the journey from place to place is part of the experience, not just a forgettable intermediary like a broker or a serving dish.  It is a reminder that we need time to ourselves and to spend time with someone else, because it’s the balance that matters as anyone with a roommate or a spouse can attest.  And it is a reminder that reading a book like this is a heck of a lot better if it takes place in New York City or some other cosmopolitan hub as opposed to Boringtown, USA because Ten Walks/Two Talks is, at its core, about all that is around us. There is a whole lot more variety to observe and report on an adventure through New York City than could Thoreau at Walden Pond or Basho in 17th century Japan. 

Anyone who has spent time in a big city lately and knows all about the pretentious restaurant revolution will chuckle at lines like page 13’s “Cancun Lounge had been converted into a fish-bar with an abstract one-word title.  The big design change was slightly more neutral tones.”  Or reread vivid scenes like page 49’s: “A pony-tailed photographer said Hi from where he lay on slabs, sounded kind of real—made the sixties seem a country people still could visit from.” Or pause after beautifully reflective reminders as on page 28: “That’s why I go back to Asian poetry and painting, to track the beauty of each season but not catch myself…and escape the trap of longing for summer in the heart of winter.”

STEPHEN KARL  is a graduate of Ithaca College and earned a master's degree from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  He lives in San Francisco with his wife and works as a business writer up near wine country.