Review: Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain

You read a Bourdain book – or rather, a book about him – with food. Them’s the rules.

This is the kind of extremely unlikable book that, once you tell people you’ve read it, they’ll walk a horse out of a nearby stable to mount so they can tell you from on high that you could see what it was a mile away, and that you shouldn’t have bothered. The exasperating thing about people like that is that they don’t get that I’m wired to partake. I watch and read and eat it all, eventually. I do not own a horse when it comes to experiencing life. I’m a gutter catfish. Worse, as a fan of The God Bourdain, if you tell me you have a book containing never-before-read material, I’m going to bite. It doesn’t matter if I can predict how I might feel about it. So before anybody gets it in their head to tell me what I should have known ahead of time, know that I did, and I still did it, and you will die not knowing why.

“Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain” is the worst kind of hit piece: it is the hit piece that pretends it doesn’t know what it is. The writer, Charles Leerhsen, instead sees it as his duty to strike past revealing the humanity of Bourdain and commit an act of deconstruction. And yet, for a book that spends several hundred pages on the narrative building powers of Anthony Bourdain, its narrative is highly suspect. It wants to be a read, aka a drag, and like all compelling reads, it seeks to strip its subject of what it perceives as an unearned facade.

In “Down and Out in Paradise,” Bourdain doesn’t get to be a good person, really ever. In a way, it criminalizes Bourdain for ending his life. Leerhsen comes off as upset, not that Bourdain is no longer with us, but that he would deign to be remotely sad about his successful lot in life to begin with. When Leehrsen extracts a quote from Bourdain about being “enraged by normalcy “, he is suspicious of the justification for some of Borden’s anger to the point that he comes off as angry himself, or that he perceives Bourdain as a spoiled child who should have loved his success more. It’s one thing to describe Bourdain in his childhood and teenage years this way, but it is another thing to do it when the man is an adult in charge of his destiny. There is a bitterness to his take that is not only unsavory, but cruel. It is hater parlance. Very different than how he talks about the process and the man in interviews.

There was a particularly tasteless tract at the beginning of chapter 3 where the writer describes how he interviews people. It is methodical but heartless. I have no issue with having a generative interview process, but it takes balls to put it so plainly on the floor. There is something sociopathic about it.

The book’s mission is clear at the outset. Its epigraph is simply Bourdain’s final, sad text exchange with his girlfriend right before killing himself. Those three lines are pretty much all the media talked about when this book dropped, and frankly, it is almost all you need to know about the book’s intent. As a former journalist, Leerhsen knows not to bury the lede.

A lot of why I refer to The God Bourdain as such is because I see so much of him in me: the restlessness, the hedonistic thirst for new things, the over-romanticism, the vacillation between a need to express a great love for humanity while getting as far away from it as possible, the self-destruct button implanted too close to the surface some days. Perhaps that is why I am offended so much by this book. Things in Bourdain’s life as drawn that make complete sense to me seem to raise an ire in Leerhsen, resulting in copious amounts of shade. If someone wrote a book like this about me, I’d recompose myself from the grave and destroy them.

Leerhsen writes (excerpt), “You need to have a lot of things go right in your life before you can become as miserable as Anthony Bourdain.” If that isn’t a preemptive tell I don’t know what is. Which is unfortunate, as the book goes digging unapologetically in corners of Bourdain’s acquaintance pool that are rarely touched. Despite its gross agenda it is solid homework – digging through unpublished juvenilia, texts and Bourdain’s phone itself – though it all serves a salacious dead end. It is impossible to give it any props because its agenda is so blatant and his own feelings so transparent.

There is a twisting of the screw here. Leerhsen seems to relish in saying, “Oh, you want to know more about Anthony Bourdain? I’ll give you more!” It is a book that I am not convinced was necessary in any form, but to have been so callous with someone so beloved by so many just comes off cruel.

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