A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean
Travelers’ Tales ($14.95)
by Clifford Garstang
With the arrogance of Paul Theroux and the comic abrasiveness of David Sedaris, this collection of “travelers’ tales” is both crude and offensive. On the other hand, except where there are dips into near-racism, these are mostly very funny extended jokes (sometimes at the expense of the author's wife, but more often the locals) about an American’s adventures in the Caribbean.
What are we meant to make of these tales? Are we supposed to believe that the author encountered Idi Amin in a Mustique nightclub restroom (spraying piss on his sandals) and that the old despot danced with and then stalked his wife? That the author was arrested for parking illegally in an empty mall parking lot while making an emergency cat food run? That he bought a miracle (volcanic eruption) from a late-night TV evangelist in order to avoid a trip with his wife that conflicted with the Super Bowl? No, probably not. At least, I don’t think so. In fact, much of the book belongs to a genre that I might call “exaggerated semi-non-fiction”—literature that doesn’t have any of the characteristics of fiction (like plot) but obviously isn’t exactly true either. At least it’s so clearly not true that the author isn’t going to be accused, like James Frey, of faking bits of his memoir in order to represent a greater "truth." This whole thing is mostly fake, and the reader who believes otherwise wouldn’t make a very reliable witness in a lawsuit, so what’s the harm?
The saving grace is that this stuff is funny. Even when it’s somewhat offensive, it’s still pretty funny. The reader may be put off by racial and national stereotypes, by Spanish rendered as unintelligible baby-talk, by the general tone of condescension toward locals and Europeans, or by turning cultural differences into comedy. (The author does claim to be a Republican and Bush supporter, which might explain his ugly-Americanness.) Or perhaps none of these things will bother the reader in the least, because Americans really do tend to behave badly overseas (never mind here at home) and it’s pretty amusing to read about someone who is even more arrogant, insensitive, and grumpy than they are. I’m not so bad after all, they might flatter themselves; look at this guy!
And “this guy” is full of complaints about the locals, the transportation, the accommodations, the bugs, the service, the food, his wife, his work. All of which is at least partly the point. The title, after all, is “A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean.” We aren’t being led to believe the book is about a nice guy who has tips for intrepid travelers. Furthermore, the cover of the book includes what is either a warning or a subtitle: “A grump in paradise discovers that anyplace it’s legal to carry a machete is comedy just waiting to happen.” So there’s no false advertising here. I wonder if the author is familiar with John Krich’s Around the World in a Bad Mood, a book with which it shares a grouchy outlook: travel-griping for fun and profit.
Probably my favorite essay in the book is its least humorous: “Papa’s Ghost.” On a trip to Cuba, the author seeks out some of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts, which is a favorite activity of American writers visiting Havana. He learns that Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea is believed by Cubans to be the story of Gregorio Fuentes, now quite an old man, and he pays the ancient mariner a visit. It is a respectful piece, either out of reverence for Hemingway or Fuentes, and one that suggests the author isn’t quite the grump he pretends to be. I enjoyed re-reading that one.
One of the sources of humor in the collection is from its endless digressions. Sometimes the digressions have digressions. These are mostly pointless detours from the main thrust of the essay, but are generally funny, in part because of the pointlessness. In “My Military-Industrial Complex,” for example, the author is in Cuba standing in line at the airport behind a Canadian, which prompts a three-page diversion into his fondness for Canadians as a result of a fishing trip and a hockey player, at the end of which the reader has surely forgotten what the essay was about in the first place. But never mind. It’s funny to digress, apparently.
Travel writing, I’ve always felt, is enjoyable because it informs. It may also transport the reader to distant places, familiar or unfamiliar. I’m not sure I want to visit Gary Buslik’s Caribbean, though, and I can’t say that anything I learned in the book equips me to do so. But then this isn’t your ordinary travel writing. This is just for yucks. Lots and lots of yucks.
Update: See A Rotten Person, the website for the book.