October 7, 2008
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Smile When You’re Lying

by Chuck Thompson

Thompson, an old hand at the travel-writing racket and also a former travel editor, sets out to explain why travel writing is so bad. The answer, of course, is that the purpose of contemporary travel writing is simply to sell stuff, to provide a frame for advertisements and to reinforce their message. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again covered this territory with plenty of style and with, on the whole, more generosity of spirit, though without claiming to cover the whole of the travel and hospitality press.

A good deal of this book concerns sex tourism, either explicitly (in chaste stories of bargirls in Thailand and the Phillipines) or obliquely (in sneers about Americans in Mexican border towns, cruise-ship shore parties, and rural Japanese English-teaching, and in a range of metaphor inspired by Hunter Thompson). You’d think that our author simply disapproves of sex — at least when you're a tourist or a traveller — except that his list of travel tips asserts that the best way to learn a language is in bed. We’re left to wonder if the writer is a hypocrite, or his editor a prude, or whether he’s a sinner who has climbed upon the wagon. Since Thompson is otherwise intelligent and insightful on the economics of tourism — arguing, for example, that his own distaste for the Caribbean is rooted in his discomfort at the contrast of extreme luxury and poverty, and that this has the effect of punishing Caribbeans for being so poor that it makes him uncomfortable — his weird delicacy on sex tourism (which he talks about at length but about which he doesn’t like to think) is a missed opportunity.