Thursday, December 27, 2007

Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying

Thompson's Smile When You're Lying is the funniest book I've read since Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day. Thompson writes travel stories you don't often hear about in the sanitized media, which include paintbrushing with unorthodox body parts, possibly being robbed by seemingly demure religious women, and writing love letters for food--and that's just the first chapter. Thompson knows how to write, is opinionated, and interesting, which usually produces a great book filled with unusual insights:

"[Bruce Lee's] kitty-cat squealing and falsetto yelping always conveyed to me an understanding of just how laughable all that in-your-face showboating is. I'm not sure what sound the koala makes in anger, but if I ever get back into kendo, that's the one I'm going to adopt as my battle cry." (p. 82, Holt Paperback)

Thompson's rants will become legendary in time--here's one on public school teachers:

"And, yes, poor unappreciated teachers. I did say sweet deal. American public school teachers have the world's best PR operation going. Whining every chance they get about how demanding their jobs are, how many 'extra hours' they put in, how little they make, how much of their own money they have to spend just to do their jobs, how noble they are working this job that nobody ever asked them to do--welcome to the f*cking world...

You think you got it tough? You don't got it tough. American teachers would crumble if they ever had to work the real hours of a cabbie, doctor, bartender, fisherman, truck driver, small-business owner, hotel clerk, mechanic, architect, janitor, musician, surveyor, accountant, or the million other jobs that don't observe weekends, much less every city, county, state, and federal holiday on the docket, almost three months' paid vacation a year, and pension programs funded out of the public trough. How is it we go through school painfully aware that half our teachers are lazy or incompetent or pathological control freaks, then turn around and let them convince us what a bunch of saints they are as soon as we become taxpayers?" (p. 100)

Thompson's views on Americans' general fear of traveling to South America are just as pellucid as his other opinions:

"Despite being home to Angel Falls, the Gran Sabana wilderness, and parts of the the Andes, Amazon River, and Carribbean coastline, fewer than half a million international visitors venture into the majestic Venezuelan countryside... This is in large part due to the fact that, fear being the lietmotif of all good propaganda, about 75 percent of Americans are convinced that any trip south of Texas will involve some combination of bribery, kidnapping, armed revolt, the most toxic GI diseases this side of the Congo, knives pulled in macho bar duels, and a probable colonoscopy at the border." (p. 118)

Thompson's ability to use sharp humor to defuse common misconceptions about travel and the world is unparalleled. One gets the feeling that he's kept all of his non-politically-correct secrets hidden to appease the gods of corporate fealty and finally decided to unleash his wisdom on all of us, decorum be damned. For example, we've all seen the alcohol ads go from Swedish bikini team to "drink responsibly" slogans. But after Thompson writes, "When the beer companies start running ads lecturing the public about responsible behavior, you sense a civilization in decline" (p. 129), you realize beer companies advocating responsibility does appear, on second glance, to be a strange combination. Those "a-ha" moments come regularly and wrapped in laugh-out-loud lines throughout the book. You owe it to yourself to read Smile When You're Lying, especially if you're looking for a good laugh.

(One point I feel compelled to make, in an act of true lawyer-ly nitpicking: Thompson bemoans traveolcity.com's attempt to increase sales using sexy women on its magazine cover, but his own book features a picture of a blonde woman in a bikini holding a margarita, beckoning readers with her pneumatic charms.)

Bonus (added on August 31, 2015): "If there were a fundamental principle that once separated America from the rest of the world, I'd nominate institutional integrity.  More simply, public honesty.  I'm not suggesting that dishonesty isn't readily found in every civilization, that a Golden Age of American honor ever existed...Nor am I parading myself as a paragon of virtue.  We all lie, to some degree, usually in petty ways, for the sake of discretion or keeping the peace or perhaps on occasion simply because it's the most expedient means available to get what we want.  Still, lying and cheating--perhaps other than to avoid hurting someone's feelings--has never been openly accepted or condoned in the United States, much less celebrated as a 'genius' operational tactic (when done with Rovian finesse) from the boardroom to the courtroom.  At least, not until recently....Worse, Americans seem to be reveling the descent...American society is no accident; it didn't evolve by providential decree; its success wasn't inevitable...Americans have historically understood that to create a country in which half the world aspires to live, the first prerequisite is the integrity of its public and private institutions.  That's the foundation upon which the country was assembled and its illustrious future once determined...What's being overlooked in the rush to save the planet, however, is that we're also pissing away a social gift as great as any people in history have been bequeathed.  And if we don't resist the seduction of the seemingly inevitable road in front of us, it won't matter how much fossil fuel we stop burning, we'll fail to preserve the part of us that mattered most in the first place." -- Chuck Thompson, To HellHoles and Back, pp. 309 et al, paperback, Henry Holt and Company. 

1 comment:

Diary of an irish woman said...

thanks I'll be getting to read. i love bill bryson and terry pratchett books so looks like enjoy these ones