Who wants to tackle great and important works of literature when it’s blazing hot out and the most difficult decision you want to make while on holiday is whether to go for a Fudgsicle or an ice cream sandwich? Not me. When I’m looking for a book to bring along with me to the beach, it better be fast-paced, easy on the brain and at least a little bit trashy.
Beach reads aren’t meant to be pondered. They shouldn’t require you to read any sentence twice. They are, instead, the breezy respite you need from worrying about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
Which is why this summer I’ve decided to revisit Anthony Bourdain’s fiction.
Since the chef, author and television personality’s death in June, obituaries and news reports have remembered Bourdain for his non-fiction books, most notably his breakout Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and his popular shows such as A Cook’s Tour and Parts Unknown.
Admirers have rightly heralded these works for promoting not only an appreciation for good food, but also for cultures beyond one’s own. (Upon Bourdain’s death, former president Barack Obama posted a message on Twitter, saying: “He taught us about food – but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”) And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, he was also a vocal supporter of women, taking their side against men he’d publicly admired in the past, including chef Mario Batali and restauranteur Ken Friedman.
In spite of his mass influence and the powerful shoulders with which he rubbed, Bourdain never came across as someone who took himself too seriously. His early works of fiction – raffish stories of mobsters and hired assassins – provide evidence.
These novels, Bone in the Throat, Gone Bamboo and The Bobby Gold Stories, published between 1995 and 2001, were written for pure entertainment. Writers more protective of their literary reputation might have published these works under a pseudonym; his low-brow capers are no Great American Novels. But nor did they strive to be. Part of Bourdain’s appeal was that he had the guts to let it all hang out.
His characters are intentionally racist and loathsome, and his descriptions of the female ones tend to be so cheesy and lustful, they can make readers cringe. Would he have written these novels differently in more recent years? It’s probably best not to think too hard about it.
Instead, just have fun reading and go with the apparent glee with which the author created them. In his introduction to Gone Bamboo, Bourdain reveals he wrote the novel on a hotel balcony in Saint Martin, in the very locale where the book’s protagonist, a hedonistic hitman, resides.
“As a chef, and a New Yorker, I am used to a somewhat more stressful, cranked up pace than exists in the Windward Islands and I wanted to write a book that would reflect the remarkable transformation one experiences after a week without shoes – the sort of boozy romanticism that comes over one when sunburned and half-drunk after a day spent paddling around in body-temperature water and eating barbecue under a palm tree,” Bourdain writes.
If that’s not the benchmark for a good summer beach read, then I don’t know what is.
He then proceeds to encourage the reader to “Put down the book, have another beer, take a dip…have sex…read another chapter. And please. Get sand between the pages.”
Consider that invitation accepted.