Friday, November 11, 2022

Book Review: Down and Out in Paradise by Charles Leerhsen

Down and Out in Paradise
It seems to be a trend. A celebrity dies, and within six months, half a dozen biographies are published. Most of them are subpar, and at worst paraphrased boilerplate from various websites.

This trend played out following the death of Anthony Bourdain in 2018. A handful of books were quickly released, most of which can be classified as hagiographic horseshit. With the release of Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain by Charles Leerhsen, we finally have a legitimate biography. Leerhsen’s book is nuanced, well written and not afraid to offend Bourdain's fans and the people in his inner circle who can benefit financially from the work he left behind.

After reading the book, you may come to the conclusion that Bourdain evolved over time from a naive asshole to an entitled asshole ill-equipped to deal with the pressures that come with fame. If you accept one narrative presented in the book, Bourdain was a monstrously self-absorbed weakling who killed himself when the going got tough. After decades of attacking others and speaking about 'authenticity,' Bourdain was in reality shamelessly inauthentic. Or perhaps the simple, black and white assessment of others and the temptation to attribute motives to their actions and come up with half-baked, reductionist theories about their lives can't help but highlight them as hypocrites in the end. Regardless, after a careful reading of the book together with checking your own biases at the door, you will probably have more empathy for Bourdain and know more about his life.

Leerhsen details Bourdain's early years in Leonia, an upper middle-class neighbourhood in New Jersey. Thankfully, Leerhsen spares readers in-depth bios of Bourdain's parents and grandparents. It's de rigueur in most biographies, and many people may like that kind of completist rendering. But here we get just enough about Bourdain's parents and their back stories to understand how they came to their places in life before raising their two sons.

Bourdain is painted as a poser while growing up. He often walked around town in a trench coat with a sword or a pair of nunchucks hanging from his belt. Like many youngsters from middle-class homes, he likely didn't know how good he had it. It seems like one of his biggest grievances growing up was that he didn't have more tangible reasons to be angry at the world. He started to use drugs at a young age and never really stopped. We also learn that Bourdain's mother was somewhat domineering and, at times, a rather unpleasant person. On the other hand, Bourdain's father was more easygoing and probably happy to let his wife take the lead on many things. An anxious, doped-up individual who never learned to deal with problems—in a nutshell, that was Bourdain at a young age. The same problems plagued him for the rest of his life and ultimately contributed to his suicide.

Anecdotes from high-school friends and anonymous sources detail Bourdain’s rather pedestrian early years. We learn about his first experiments with drugs and an interest in edgy, angst-ridden musicians and writers. In some ways Bourdain never got over that adolescent phase. It seems he was forever trapped inside the black-and-white bohemian poster that hangs on every under-grad’s dorm-room wall.

The story then moves along into territory many readers are familiar with: Bourdain’s time at the Culinary Institute of America, his various jobs as a chef in New York and his addiction to drugs. Like many people, Bourdain engaged in myth-making about his own life, including those early years in Leonia and his time as a chef. Other people’s memories often don’t line up with Bourdain’s public pronouncements, but other times, they do. Leerhsen includes numerous quotes from friends and former classmates and contrasts those memories against Bourdain's previously recorded thoughts and observations about his early life.

Leerhsen details in a very believable way the slow-motion demise of Bourdain's marriage to his first wife, Nancy Putkoski. A relationship, if not founded on, then at least hardened and later petrified by mutual addiction and all its attendant dysfunction and destructiveness. When Kitchen Confidential hit, Bourdain's life started to change, and he wanted to embrace it all. But according to Leerhsen (and others) the celebrity lifestyle and related opportunities and travel did not appeal to Putkoski. And no doubt Bourdain pushed the relationship to its conclusion by his desire to sample everything that was on offer at the time. After Putkoski and Bourdain divorced in 2005, the remainder of his life would be dominated by two relationships with much younger women. Both were Italians of a more basic type, one generally good-natured, the other slithery, self-absorbed and the worst possible partner for someone like Bourdain. I get the feeling that Putkoski is probably one of the people who best understands Bourdain and maybe wasn't as surprised as others by his suicide. She seems a rather private person, though perhaps she may provide the final word on Bourdain's life one of these days.  

Though Bourdain tried to cultivate an image of himself as someone who always thought of the little guy, his actions don't always bear that out. In one of many anecdotes in the book, a former colleague of Bourdain's recounts how he, the former colleague, had fired another chef who worked alongside Bourdain. The fired chef went on to kill himself, an outcome the person who fired him had feared. Bourdain mocked the man who had taken his life as a weakling. 

In a similar vein, Bourdain seemed impressed by experiences with various tyrannical managers and restaurant owners who treated employees badly. They got what they wanted through manipulation and intimidation and that seemed to have a profound influence on Bourdain. Of course, Bourdain could have been both things at the same time: an admirer of honest, hard-working people, and someone who thought it was acceptable to step on others to get what you want. People are a mess of contradictions and our impressions are formed based on situational factors, when we knew the individual and many other things. Any person who has his life flayed open for public examination probably won't come out looking too good. The problem with Bourdain was that a big part of his schtick was judging others. Highlighted against that tendency, his hypocritical behaviour tends to turn people's guts more than it might otherwise.

That dichotomy between Bourdain's publicly cultivated image and the reality as witnessed by those around him dominates much of the book. It's the chronicling of a descent into near madness. The chasm between who Bourdain wanted to be seen as and who he really was became wider and wider until, hanging by his fingers on one side of the canyon and his toes on the other side, he could no longer perform the trick. It is pitiful, painful and, at times, repellent to read. The self-destructive behaviour and accompanying arrogance increased at a rapid clip as Bourdain inched closer to oblivion.

Probably the most frustrating aspect of Bourdain’s downfall was his attraction and warped fealty to Asia Argento. A pussy-whipped man elicits viscerally repugnant feelings in others. Maybe mostly in other men. Yes, it’s easy to judge. But, damn! That type of male weakling who is so incapable of eliciting admiration or respect is even more vomit-inducing at the age Bourdain was when he fell under the spell of that unremarkable, superficial, fame-obsessed woman. Worse, Bourdain seemed to know what a castrated, mewling fleck of weakness he had become. But he just couldn’t make the break.

Argento is one of the people credited with starting the #MeToo movement because of the treatment she suffered at the hands of Harvey Weinstein. Which makes the claims against her by a seventeen-year-old and the blackmail payoff  by Bourdain as  reported in the book, all the more repulsive. How much did Bourdain’s involvement in the sordid affair lead to his suicide? Impossible to say. As readers, we of course know where this story ends. That horrible final act by Bourdain is in the foreground throughout the book and further takes centre stage as the narrative nears its conclusion.

As an accomplished writer with many successful books under his belt, surely Leerhsen must understand the concept of giving important events a detailed rendering. In other words, major turning points and profound life situations deserve more words. So the fact the ending has a rushed feeling is  surprising. Bourdain's a corpse in a hotel room and then, not much else. We get some details of Bourdain's memorial that took place a few months after his death. But no real final ringing testament to Bourdain's life. Perhaps that was intentional. An attempt to show how pointless and depressing everything was near the end. And to show how there were very few people left whom he hadn't alienated. Still, I think it could have been handled better. There must be some people left who could have rhapsodized poetic about Bourdain's life and death. (To be fair, Leerhsen himself does pay tribute to Bourdain’s legacy throughout the book in some very memorable passages.)

On the other hand, at least Leerhsen didn't go too far in the other direction. He didn't give voice to the sentiment popular in the last few years that suicide is a contagion floating through the universe which latches onto people and turns them into automatons incapable of thought or free will. Bourdain ended his own life. He killed himself. He wrapped a belt around his neck, let himself fall forward and entered eternity. An unspeakable tragedy that nonetheless does not benefit anyone from being given the fairy tale treatment. I noticed that some other media outlets went with the traditional 'committed suicide' or 'killed himself' instead of the more politically correct phrasing that has gained traction recently. 

I don't want to suggest that suicide isn't one of the most horrible and destructive acts imaginable. The despair and terror  people experience before taking their own lives is real, and they deserve as much empathy as any human can muster. And the pain caused by suicide will haunt the people left behind for however many decades they continue to exist. But the trend in the past few years of elevating those who commit suicide to sainthood is quite dangerous. A pedestrian telling of the final hours and minutes, replete with the banal minutiae and existential dreariness of an anonymous hotel room, hopefully removes the romanticization often associated with that irreversible and horrific decision. Again, maybe that was Leerhsen's intention all along.

And, thankfully, Leerhsen avoids the selfish/not-selfish debate that often accompanies the aftermath of a suicide. Perhaps some anonymous sources in the book veer towards that tired discussion. But it is generally left unexplored by Leerhsen. Humans are selfish by their very nature, though everything is about degrees. Different people and actions can be ranked on a scale of selfishness. But I believe that suicide is usually an irrational act committed by someone in a state of overwhelming despair and mental exhaustion. A person's  state of mind at that moment is compounded by what they've done in their lives and what has been done to them. In Bourdain's case, like with many others, his brain had been corroded by a lifetime spent consuming drugs and alcohol. Perhaps he was sickened by what he had become and couldn't imagine mustering the energy to move on from his destructive relationship with Argento. As someone obsessed with crafting a public image, the fear of being found out for all his weaknesses may also have spurred him on. Or perhaps a moment of clarity and an inescapable world-weariness combined to form a toxic mix that pushed him forward. And so he performed the ultimate act of self-criticism and gave up any hope of ever again achieving peace of mind.

Leerhsen swats away any thoughts that Bourdain may have died of auto-erotica asphyxiation. The question is always raised when someone, especially high-profile, dies by hanging nowadays. It's a legitimate consideration. I'm not sure if Leerhsen's confidence in the absence of any evidence of auto-erotica asphyxiation is well founded. Since most people who die this way are also naked, the thinking goes, then someone fully clothed couldn't have died that way. I don't buy it. If there are enough freaks willing to get off in such a dangerous way, surely it's not a stretch to imagine an added kink of doing it while fully clothed. Or, more likely, being fully clothed might indicate the fear of dying and the (never-to-be experienced) embarrassment of otherwise being found naked. To be clear, there is no evidence, beyond the fact he hanged himself, that Bourdain died while engaged in such an activity. But the lack of critical thinking by Leerhsen on the matter is disappointing.

Since Bourdain was apparently a whore-monger, why not at least talk to some of the prostitutes he paid over the last few years of his life? Surely they could provide some insight into his kinks and whether he may have died in that most shameful and sordid way. Or even ask anyone in his life about whether he talked about that part of his life. Regardless, it's surprising that Leerhsen didn't at least track down some of the prostitutes for insight into Bourdain's overall state of mind. He doesn't pull many punches nor avoid any other seedy aspect of Bourdain's life, so why not explore that dingy avenue as well?

This is pure speculation, but perhaps Leerhsen agreed not to divulge or explore some aspects of Bourdain's life in exchange for information. A quid pro quo that might not make sense at first. If someone was willing to provide details about private matters related to Bourdain's final years, why would they want some aspects to remain secret? Who knows? People are complicated. But again, this is all speculation. Another 'lack' that may support the theory that the narrative was shaped to satisfy sources is the fact that the extent of Bourdain's estate is not discussed in any detail. Though Leerhsen does at least discount the belief, widely circulated after Bourdain's death, that he was only worth a million dollars or even less. Bourdain had probably accumulated far more than that.

Your opinion of this book well may be shaped by your opinion of Bourdain while he was alive. I read Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential shortly after it was released in 2000. It's a fantastic book. But he never wrote anything else that came close. I watched a handful of episodes from his travel shows over the years, but they didn't appeal. It's easy to say after the fact, and even easier because Leerhsen's book validates this claim, but I always thought Bourdain was a bit of a fraud regarding the image he presented to the world. This article I wrote over ten years ago at least demonstrates this isn't an opinion I came to recently. Perhaps it's because I've spent most of my adult life living in foreign countries. Bourdain's schtick may have appealed to people who will never travel to the locations featured in his travel shows. And in Kitchen Confidential, he wrote more than a few times about the 'rubes' who haven't got a clue. Bourdain was a person who loved to judge others but acted like a class-A asshole for much of his life, always justifying his behaviour. His justifications often came down to the same basic premise: he felt he was hipper and more sophisticated than the people he was treating like shit, so it was okay.

To be clear, this is not a book-length assault on Bourdain’s character. Far from it. Leerhsen praises Bourdain often regarding his accomplishments. He also gives plenty of space to people who have good things to say about Bourdain. The harshest reading of Bourdain near the end of his life is that he was a 61-year-old punk, and not the kind related to the music he often listened to. The truest kind of punk—the kind who thinks he knows more about the world and himself than he really does. But there was far more to Bourdain than his shortcomings, and Leerhsen, I think, allows those positive traits to come through in his telling.

What about the quality of writing in Down and Out in Paradise? Leerhsen has the tendency to write passages full of overly long sentences. As a result, there are more than a few garden-path sentences, too. But there are many other sections which really sing. Many memorable lines throughout. In this passage, Leerhsen writes about Bourdain and his life-long habit of being condescending and arrogant:

If you were charismatic enough, he had long since discovered, you could, if you were so disposed, conduct what was essentially a constant, low-grade hazing ritual that kept people discomfited while simultaneously making them feel like they were on the verge of being admitted to a very exclusive club. And people, being people, would love you for doing that to them.

To steal one of Leerhsen's own sentences (he was, of course, writing about Bourdain) and change it a bit: He (Leerhsen) is a very good, but not great, writer. 

I encountered about ten or more mistakes in the book, most of them of the missing-word variety. That comes from sloppy editing. By today's standards, it's not a badly edited book, but it's not well edited either.

Other so-called revelations hyped up before the release of Down and Out in Paradise actually receive very little attention in the book. Bourdain's supposed use of steroids was highlighted often in the pre-release publicity. But Leerhsen only mentions this habit, apparently acquired fairly late in Bourdain's life, a few times, almost in passing. When did he start using steroids? Where did he get them? What were the results of his steroid use? Did he talk about his decision with anyone? Did he suffer any side effects? Zero information appears in the book regarding any of those questions.

The fans who like their idols immortalized and any shortcomings air-brushed out of the picture won't appreciate Down and Out in Paradise. But they likely won't read it in the first place anyway. For the rest of us, Down and Out in Paradise provides more insight about Bourdain's life than any other book released since his death. An attempt at a tell-all that doesn't quite go far enough, but still gives us a believable glimpse into the life and death of Anthony Bourdain, a person whose remarkable final third of life was acted out on the public stage. When fame, money and the the shortcomings that haunted him all along ratcheted up the pressure beyond a level he was capable of dealing with, he checked out of life and journeyed into the unknown.