I’m reading Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism (Three Rivers). Kohnstamm, bitten early by the travel bug, has an early-life crisis (at the time the book takes place, he’s still in his twenties), walks away from his job, and flies to Brazil to write for the Lonely Planet guidebook.
The book’s emphasis on Kohnstamm’s wild ‘n’ crazy adventures made me think of Glasgow Phillips’ Royal Nonesuch: or, What Will I Do When I Grow Up? And also Dan Dunn’s Nobody Likes a Quitter (and Other Reasons to Avoid Rehab): The Loaded Life of an Outlaw Booze Writer…and also Tom Sykes’ What Did I Do Last Night?
Besides their seeming prediliction for titles in the form of questions, what do these books have in common? Well, they’re all writing in the shadow of Hunter S. Thompson, of course. The jacket copy on Kohnstamm’s book invokes the name of the gonzo great, and Dunn, apparently, was even a protege of Thompson. But making such comparisons is dangerous. In part because, if you measure your worth by feats of consumption, there’s actual danger in trying to be the “best.” But more because Thompson’s gift wasn’t his herculean intake of mind-altering substances, it was his mind itself. And, before he himself became a parody of himself [Ed: that reads like Nigel Tufnel channeling Austin Powers, dunnit?], the gonzo style allowed him a way to capture the weirdness at the heart of some of his stories–and it was new, a refreshing antidote to the style of journalism practiced by his contemporaries.
Also, he was insanely funny.
Writers who go gonzo without Thompson’s humor and savagely penetrating intellect run the risk of coming off like boring drunks. Or at least like self-absorbed, self-indulgent navel-gazers who think it’s funny to do journalism–or any job–poorly.
Having gotten all that off my chest, I think Kohnstamm’s book is actually the best of the lot. Roughly speaking, there are three elements in it: his early-life crisis and the pull of wanderlust; his drinking, drugging, and fornicating; and his expose of the business of writing travel guides. He plays the HST card on his first hand, during a booze-and-coke-fueled pub crawl with a character referred only to as “the Doctor,” but his sharp, funny writing and self-deprecation save the day. To wit:
There is nothing tough about writing–the act of writing is about as burly as operating a cash register….
But it’s his thoughts on travel writing that keep me turning pages: the Lonely Planet’s journey from backpacker tip sheet to middle-class faux-hobo itinerary; the loneliness that can ensue when it’s your job to write seriously about what everyone else does for fun; the impossible assignment of writing about travel that you can’t yourself afford. (In one brilliant scene, he gets thrown out of a hotel that he’s researching because he looks like he can’t afford to stay there.)
I’ve never done any travel writing, but I have had a few experiences that resonate. I’ve written reviews of restaurants where the assigning publication wouldn’t cover the cost of a decent meal. And I contributed to a Chicago guidebook once–a great learning experience, but the pay probably didn’t cover the cost of my shoe leather.
So if booze is fuel for the journey, then so be it. But writers need to be careful not to get stuck at the bottom of the glass.