An American Abroad

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 3

The authors of the books featured this week have distinctive voices, the kind you can identify from a single paragraph.

There’s the amphetamine-fueled Beat Generation prose of Jack Kerouac. The media-drenched flat affect of Alex Garland. The compassionate and erudite tut-tutting of Theodore Dalrymple. The dreamlike unreliable narration of James Salter. The sardonically twinned Thai and western perspectives of John Burdett’s Thai/American police detective. These voices speak to me still.

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Yes, that’s me in the photo. I’ve been a reader since I was a kid.

Buying these books through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy! And please let me know what you think of them.

By the way, if you’re interested in other books I’ve enjoyed, check out Part 1 or Part 2 of this series, or go to my buy page.

On the Road
Jack Kerouac
This classic beat novel never really grabbed me and shook me, but it has become something more like an casual friend -- the kind of guy you're never intimately close to, but who shows up in your life from time to time with stories of interesting adventures and then disappears again for months or years at a time. Kerouac's prose is as relentless as his characters' peregrinations across the US, their late-night bull sessions, and their thirst for the sensate. As his protagonist and stand-in, Sal Paradise, says, "[T]he only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
The Beach
Alex Garland
Comparing this book to, say, Michener's The Drifters,
one can see how much youth culture has changed in fifty years. The Beach is a fusion of video games, movies, violence, dark politics, and -- oh yeah, travel. There are drugs, too, but whereas in earlier travel books drugs are seen as routes to spiritual bonding, here they lead generally to bad trips of both the figurative and literal type. Garland also offers a sharp critique of hipper-than-thou western travelers who glom onto a beautiful "undiscovered" spot somewhere in the developing world and ultimately wind up ruining the things that made it so special.
Zanzibar to Timbuktu: A Journey Across Africa
Theodore Dalrymple
(Available for Kindle only)
Theodore Dalrymple's real name is Anthony Daniels. He has been quoted as saying he chose his nom de plume because he wanted "a name that sounded suitably dyspeptic, that of a gouty old man looking out of the window of his London club, port in hand, lamenting the degenerating state of the world." This is to say that he is a man of conservative mien and mind. But whereas many conservatives who travel (the awful P.J. O'Rourke comes to mind) put on a sneer and leave compassion at home, Dalrymple seems truly to care about the poor people of Africa he encounters in his overland journey from Zanzibar to Timbuktu. There is compassion for the impoverished, the criminal, and the crazy. And damn, the man can write.
A Sport and a Pastime
James Salter
By telling his tale of an affair between a ne'er-do-well American college kid and a rather ordinary French shopgirl through the voice of a man who knew them only peripherally, Salter was able to give his prose a shimmering, dream-like quality. Our narrator frankly admits he is embellishing, filling in details, adding things he couldn't possibly know. His descriptions of the couple's sweetly transgressive sodomy, for instance, tell us more about what's really going on in the narrator's head than what's going on in the couple's bed. The flashy, expensive, but decaying car the couple borrow and drive around France feels like something out of The Great Gatsby. As with Gatsby, the reader never doubts that Salter's couple is racing toward its demise, but we are only too glad to go along for the ride. One of the most neglected and underrated prose stylists of the mid-twentieth century, Salter has written a book that illuminates the almost inherently doomed nature of even the most torrid expatriate seductions.
The Royal Thai Detective Novels
John Burdett
Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (1)

Bangkok Tattoo: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (2)

Bangkok Haunts: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (3)

The Godfather of Kathmandu: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (4)

Vulture Peak: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (5)

I'm cheating with my counting here, since there are five books (to date) in this series about police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a former gangster, former Buddhist monk, and current member of the Bangkok police force. The books (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, The Godfather of Kathmandu, and Vulture Peak) hang together well, with story arcs that go from volume to volume. I first read Bangkok 8 on a trip to Thailand at Christmas time, 2013. I concluded then that it was a far better and deeper guide to the city than Lonely Planet.

As a whole, the series is about corruption: of the flesh, of the political process, of law enforcement, of daily life. But these books are no jeremiads. Indeed, they go out of their way to explain how what we in the west view as corruption has a rational basis in the Thai mentality. Along the way, Burdett explores the conflicts between farang (foreign) and Thai culture, Thai attitudes toward sex, drugs, and popular culture, and between powerful factions in Thai society. The protagonist, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, narrates all five books in the first person and frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, often in a way that challenges foreign assumptions about Thailand and its people.








Comments

  1. Absolutely awesome list/s – keep up the great work James…love the Bangkok 8 series…killer reads…new one coming soon ..check out http://deeptravelandlifestyle.com/21-greatest-books-to-inspire-travel/

    Cheers, Will

    • James Trumm says:

      That’s a great list you have there, Will. And I am glad to hear that John Burdett is coming out with a new Sonchai Jitpleecheep novel. They’re great guides to a culture I would otherwise have little insight into.

  2. Your Theodore Darlymple reminded me of William Dalrymple whom I had the pleasure of meeting in London. Doesn’t seem they are related (nom de plume) but have you read any WD? I actually haven’t but……..

    • James Trumm says:

      Confession: I have never heard of William Dalrymple. On your suggestion, I scoped him out on Amazon. Looks like he writes a lot about Central Asia and the “Great Game.” Interesting. I put his Afghanistan book on my Wish List.

      Theodore Dalrymple, whose books I recommend (I’ve actually read two of them so far), is the kind of guy I’d have numerous political disagreements with, but unlike so many of today’s “conservatives,” he is a true intellectual, a superb prose stylist, and a compassionate soul. I picture us having wonderful arguments over coffee and scones.

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