THERE are books that deal with what we consider familiar – familiar, that is, in the sense of lacking mystery – and show us that even the most commonplace objects and situations are far more mysterious than we think. These are the books that reawaken our attention to the things we took for granted and so were beginning to lose, books whose primary task is what Seamus Heaney calls “making strange”.

Equally, there are books that confront the world’s mysteries, exploring the shadows, venturing into the interior and coming back with tentative maps and keepsakes – and Tent Boxing is one of these, an account of the writer’s journey with Australia’s touring pugilists that takes on not just one but two of the world’s real conundrums: the Australian outback and the equally mysterious wilderness of masculinity.

Both have been tackled before, of course. Far too often, however, those efforts have been botched. Manhood is either ungraciously debunked or shrouded in an all-too-familiar mystique; the outback is treated simply as a theatre for whatever ideas, dreams and fears the writer brought there. Wayne McLennan, however, is far too intelligent, and far too honest, to make those mistakes: his return to the Australia of his childhood may be touched, as he remarks in his introduction, with “the old sadness that I carried with me of a man who has left paradise”, but he never gives in to the temptation to rhapsodise, any more than he allows himself the easy dismissal that a returning native might feel when his remembered heaven fails to live up to the fantasy.

Instead he is clear-eyed yet reverent, detailed in his observations but aware throughout that there are subtleties and touches of magic that mere observation cannot capture; and though his prose style is as crisp and truthful as Hemingway’s, he allows himself moments of lyricism that are never tainted by the kind of sentiment or self-regard to which ‘Papa’ occasionally fell victim.

In his treatment of men – of their native aggression, their deep but barely articulated fellow- feeling, their suppressed love for the land and for one another – McLennan will also be compared to Hemingway; but, once again, his is a quieter, more considered approach. Just as he avoids bringing to Australia the intellectual baggage and tendency to mystification that, say, Bruce Chatwin displays in The Songlines, so he steers clear of the obvious and rather infantile mystique of ‘the Male’.

What makes McLennan such a good writer about manhood is that he loves and respects other men as they are, rather than finding in them the reflections of his own self-regard. Tent Boxing invests not only its rather disturbing subject matter – two men fighting head to head while others watch – with a strange unsettling beauty, it also persuades us that nothing is ever as brutal, or as ugly, as it seems. This is a masterful book by an author whose eye and ear never fail him, mostly because he never forgets that what matters in a book is not the writer but the world.

Rowing to Alaska itches beneath the skin and hammers in the heart for anyone who wants something more out of life – in either the living of it or even just the reading about it.

– Zinta Aistars

Wayne McLennan is that rare thing, a person who has lived life to the full and can write. One of the great contradictions about writers is that they must devote so much time to the creation of their works that they inevitably live an existence alienated from the vast majority of humanity.

– David Messer, Sydney Morning Herald

TENT BOXING WAS A REGULAR feature of agricultural shows from the early part of the last century until the late 1960s, when new laws required that tent boxers work under the same conditions as professionals and most of the troupes went out of business. Wayne McLennan, himself an ex-professional boxer, discovered that there were still troupes operating in Queensland and came all the way from his adopted home in Holland to travel with Bells Touring Boxing Troupe.

– Owen Richardson, The Age

This was meant to be the year when publishers cleaned up with paperback editions of the hardbacks by England’s ‘Heroes of ’06’ – or at least started to make some returns on their heavy investments. But Totally Frank: The Autobiography of Frank Lampard, Rio – My Story, Wayne Rooney – My Story So Far and My Defence by Ashley Cole all bombed so spectacularly that it was easy to see the sports publishing business as a microcosm of the larger banking crisis.

– The Guardian Sports

Wayne McLennan is a rare thing – a man who is equally at home and accomplished drinking in the world’s toughest bars as he is writing prose. Captured here in 15 story-length chapters – each one a separate episode that has only McLennan as its continuous reference point – we travel with the author as he works his way around the globe undertaking a series of demanding jobs in romantic yet remote corners.

– Foto. 8

Tent Boxing is a much more narrow, more personal exploration of the themes of camaraderie and organized violence than is Preston’s book. But while the author, Wayne McLennan, comes at the subject from a more experienced place than does Preston, he’s still after the same question: Why? Why at 50-years-old, with a wife and a successful business and a brain one bad hit away from permanent damage would a man spend a summer baking in the Queensland heat, going from town to town with a carnival tent full of fighters taking cheap paydays to box puffed up half-drunk locals?

– Richard Warnica, The Tyee

IN travel writing, the travel and the writing are important, of course, but don’t bother doing either unless you have a third element: the gimmick. That, at least, seems to be the lesson offered by many of this season’s travel books, sometimes subtly, sometimes with a declarative squawk.

– New York Times


What Readers Are Saying


Outside a Bar in Amsterdam I got talking to a guy and we shared a couple of drinks while we swapped life-stories. His were more exiting than mine, sometimes hard to believe, but I did.

He mentioned that he’d written a couple of books and told me the titles, so on return to the UK I ordered them, courtesy of Amazon, but put off reading for a few days. This is because in the past I’ve met several people who can tell a great story when talking but when committing it to the page get too clever, too complex and lose the directness, the rawness and the momentum that kept you hooked in the first place. Always a disappointment.

Not a problem here though-I’ve just finished ‘Rowing to Alaska” and have enjoyed it immensely. It may be that the chapters are disjointed, as someone earlier has suggested, but I think it’s none the worse for that and reflects a life that ricocheted like a pinball from one adventure to the next.. I wouldn’t have wanted it to flow smoothly and liked being taken by surprise by each part.

There’s a depth of description and reflection that made the characters and the countries come alive and an honesty that doesn’t pull any punches. There isn’t any self-glorification and the accounts of physical hardships and good friendships took me with it.

I’ve left a day or so between chapters as I found the images stayed with me and I wanted time to enjoy them before moving on.

Heather Dale

During those inbetween times when I am unable to travel myself (woe is me), then I travel on a vehicle of words – and oh, how satisfactory is this one! McLennan is new to writing, or so he claims at the opening of this book, but I struggle to believe it. He tells of moving to Estonia with his Dutch wife (she surely has courage to marry such a wanderlusting man), a writer, and when he struggles with boredom, she encourages him to put his snappy stories to the written page – and this is the result. If he’s not practiced, he certainly is gifted. A comparison made by a Granta reviewer (under the publisher’s umbrella, but I’m not arguing) to Hemingway is not unwarranted. McLennan’s travel stories are filled to bursting with male bravado, much like Papa’s, and he knows how to write spare when needed, spiced when it serves, lavish when the story requires it. “Rowing” is nearly impossible to put down, if only to eye the road oneself. McLennan comes from Australia, but calls the world, the road, his home. The title story is probably my personal favorite, if only because good-sized chunks of my own wanderlusting heart still reside in Alaska, haunted by my own memories which he so well brought to life again. It is a tale of two men rowing 1,000 miles from Seattle to Alaska, and if the author wasn’t sworn to lifelong adventure seeking before then, he was by the time he completed this journey. McLennan writes (in no particular order, in 15 travel essays) about a long list of improbable jobs (bank clerk, gold panner, boat skipper, bartender, wild pig hunter) and places he has experienced by full immersion: Australia, Costa Rica, Pacific Northwest, Nicarauga, London, France, Spain, Estonia. His rich language brings to life great adventure without arrogance (well, maybe a little, in his belt notching adventures with the opposite gender), not sparing himself or anyone else in his path an honest and colorful appraisal. He takes on dangerous expeditions as if it never occurred to him not to do so, not a question or hesitancy in his mind, and travel becomes his rites of passage into finding purpose outside the routine everyday too many rest of us accept. “Rowing to Alaska” itches beneath the skin and hammers in the heart for anyone who wants something more out of life – in either the living of it or even just the reading about it. Inspiring star50_tpng I truly enjoyed this book. Althoughthe subject matter is definately masculine, there is a soft, gentle, beguiling thread running through all of the stories. The decsriptive images will stay with me for many years. I never thought of seeing a ‘splash of dust’ but I understood exactly what was happening. I read it in 2 days.. I conclude how boring the 9-5 world really is. This man has live a passionate, scary and fullfilling if not fruitful life. Very enjoyable.
Anonymous, Hermosa beach California

Interesting travel book by an Australian. He’s done all sorts of crazy and cool things, including, as the title suggests, rowing a boat from Seattle to Alaska. I thought that it was a well-written book and definitely inspiring to keep up on my travels, however I felt that the chapters were sometimes somewhat disjointed, jumping from one thing to another. Overall though, I thought it was worth a read!
Spencer, USA

Yay! My first wild catch in ages!! I found this book at Bayview Backpackers in Picton, Marlborough. I picked it up and brought it home – not even knowing it was a bookcrossing book! I am halfway through a book at the moment then I will get onto this one! Thankyou very much.
Picton, Marlborough

I just finished this book today during a VERY hungover Sunday.This book was interesting, I enjoyed it! I agree with sapu that the chapters do seem disjointed – but I liked this as it meant that I could just pick it up every now and then and read a few chapters. Each chapter was sort of a new story, with new adventures and new characters introduced. I enjoyed this book – thankyou sapu for sharing it! This book is now going home with another bookcrossing member, knowall (my dad). I think this book will interest him as well! UPDATE: 12th June 2008 I just got this book back from Knowall today, he said it was one of the best books that he has read in a very long time. I am going to pass it onto another bookcrossing member now (hooper).
Picton, Marlborough

A great book to travel with… unless you want to stop travelling. The language was descriptive, inspiring, and quite funny at times. Thank you for leaving this book to find me! I plan to pass it on to others, but I may insist that they return it to me as I hope to draw from it for future writings of my own.


I must admit I loved reading this book. I could not put it down . I myself traveled for years on many shows in the United States. I knew many guys who were just like the characters in the book. This book nailed down what it is like to be a showman. It dealt strickly with the working men and how they came to the buisness and how they lived. If you ever wanted to know what it is like to travel with a show then this is a good primer. Wayne McLennan does fine job explaining what is like to live in an era that has almost forgotten the the old showmen paticularly the Boxing Tent fighters. It is sad this way of life is dieing out. Good for Wayne for preserving a small bit of it . These shows have long been forgotten in the States. They used to be known here as AT shows or athlectic shows. They usualy accompanied Carnival and even Circus Sideshows. They actually were quite profitable in their time. Fun and interesting read for any one who wants to really know what that sort of life was all about. Books on this subject are so hard to come by.
Richard L. Maguire "Wristlock"

The best modern book of travel writing/social anthropolgy I have read for years. Wayne McLennan joins one of the last tent boxing troupes in Australia for a fascinating look at this dying way of life.