Smile When You're Lying by Chuck Thompson (Holt Paperback)


I love to travel, I love to eat, and I love reading magazines. Staring at the passing landscape from a comfortable train seat and contemplating my next meal, with a small stack of glossy magazines close at hand, is what I hope awaits me after death if I behave myself in this life. Obviously I must be an indefatigable fan of those magazines that are devoted to food or travel, right?

Wrong. Heaven knows I’ve tried to read them. I’ve even bought a few, seduced by their glorious photographs, but every time I’ve gotten past the images, my eyes glaze over, my brain becomes paralyzed from the non-stop barrage of adjectives, and I begin to long for something else to read-- perhaps the back of a cereal box or the label on a bottle of aspirin.

If this sounds a trifle harsh, let me assure you it is mild compared to the blazingly funny critique of travel writing offered by Chuck Thompson, a man who has made his living for years writing for and about "the world’s second-largest commercial enterprise." He’s also a writer who has left most of his best stories unwritten, to be told only in the presence of alcohol and in the company of good friends—until now.

A boy from Juneau, Alaska, Thompson grew up surrounded by the tourist industry and its over-used superlatives. It doesn’t take too many encounters with phrases like "spectacular glaciers" and "the charm of the Gold Rush" or one or two cruise ships filled with souvenir-buyers to turn any lad into a cynic and a traveler who knows that whatever is being touted should probably be ignored, whether it’s described by a glossy brochure or Lonely Planet.

Chuck Thompson is all that and a fine writer too. He opens his book with what promises to be just another story about a Bangkok blowjob bar that is going to substitute one set of clichés for a cluster that is equally time-worn but oh so edgy, and then makes it completely original and entirely his own with his closing sentence. And right from that beginning, when they are whisked away from the perils of reading a watered-down William Vollmann, readers know that they are in for a good time—because the author certainly is.

Thompson is a force to be argued with, and there are going to be many moments when his readers long to do that. Freed from the advertorial school of magazine writing, he never loses an opportunity to voice an opinion or to describe an encounter that’s just a wee bit on the seamy side and guaranteed to make the most politically correct choke on their decaf soymilk lattes while laughing. "It’s a shame," he admits, "but the fact stands that potential sodomy is more entertaining than clement weather, reliable public services, and obedient citizenry." Yup, that it is, when it’s a story told by someone who knows how to tell it, as is the one about writing a letter for an aging lady of dubious virtue on an idyllic Thai island or another that explains why a Japanese friend was nicknamed "Firehose."

Although it’s quite possible that he may not live to write a follow-up, because if Paul Theroux hasn’t put out a contract on him, certainly Lonely Planet will, Chuck Thompson has created a whole new spectrum of travel writing and a book that you can give to everyone on your holiday gift list—or at least for all who already have been endowed with a sense of humor.