On turning the final page of this book, one could be forgiven for expecting to find an index of European place names and attractions, such is the academic and yet highly informative and interesting nature of On Five Dollars a Day. In fact, James W. Macnutt should probably have also included a bibliography, listing Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome as his inspirations for this work, as he appears to borrow heavily from these travel writers for the sparse personal anecdotes which punctuate it. However, this may be an unfair assessment of a book which nonetheless paints a startlingly alien but absorbing picture of 1960s Europe, still suffering the effects of the second world war while in the midst of the Cold war, through the eyes of the Canadian author’s younger self as he travels through the continent for four months.
His journey starts with a charming account of his trip from Canada to Britain, one free from security checks, but not from heart-warming parental concern. Barely accustomed to war-torn Belgium, Holland and Denmark, he comes face to face with Neo-Nazis in Lübeck before being interrogated by East Berlin border guards. After picking up multiple companions and souvenirs and losing them just as quickly, he carries on to Greece via Austria and Yugoslavia. By this point, the young protagonist has become a wisened and focussed traveller, and as he ventures through the Mediterranean to Turkey the reader hears less and less of the humorous failings and cultural shocks which characterise his experiences in the first half of the book and more and more about the architectural and cultural beauty that surround him.
Rather like the 1957 guidebook with which the work shares its name, On Five Dollars A Day can be appreciated for being an exceptionally precise and intimate tool with which to explore over 20 European cities. Macnutt’s descriptions of cities like Istanbul, which brings to life the world of the late photographer Ara Guler, and of ancient artefacts such as the bust of Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin (which is still there to be seen) are remarkably vivid, bearing in mind that the author hasn’t visited them in 50 years. Combined with this, his extensive knowledge of the history of the places he visits and his astute awareness of the contemporary political and social climates in each of the countries make him a role model traveller.
However, this excellent substance comes at the expense of style, which has the consequence of making most of the book sound like a Lonely Planet editorial. His insistence on using the third person and changing his younger self’s name to Will is jarring, and only serves to undermine the authority of the author; he admits that only 80 per cent of the story is true, so the reader comes to the conclusion that the work is to some extent just his embellished memoirs. Furthermore, his pedagogy often turns to pedantry as he concentrates on minor, irrelevant details like the colour of flight attendants’ dresses, and turns also to prudishness as he reacts to the sexual revolution unfolding around him. Indeed, the blurb promises “earthly pursuits” of an “alcoholic, but occasionally amorous” nature, but these are few and very far between, robbing the work of any kind of relatable plot or forward drive.
Nevertheless, Macnutt’s “first foray into fiction” proved to be an enjoyable read. It is confused, rather like the world it is set in – a telling reminder that the Europe of today is still a much safer and more stable continent than it was only 50 years ago.
On Five Dollars a Day by James W. Macnutt
Austin Macauley Publishers (2017)
Image: DariuszSankowski via Pixabay.