February 2008

Melissa A. Barton

nonfiction

Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer promises the kind of travel stories magazines don’t publish, as well as insider dirt on the travel industry (and travel writing) itself. Author Chuck Thompson does deliver the kind of travel stories you don’t see in Travel + Leisure, although you might see them in Maxim or a collection of travel essays.

I’m not sure I agree with Thompson that the most memorable experiences from traveling are “getting laid, sick, lost, home,” or that these are the stories readers truly want. Smile When You’re Lying is told cleverly and certainly doesn’t suffer from the lack of “anything approaching an authentic point of view” that Thompson says plagues travel publications. But I personally found stories about Southeast Asian prostitution less interesting than the insider information about the travel industry, or Thompson’s chapter on the Caribbean.

Thompson has a social conscience, and it’s most apparent in the chapter titled “Am I the Only One Who Can’t Stand the Caribbean?” (no, Mr. Thompson, you’re not). This was the first chapter I read after scanning the table of contents (the book is more an essay collection than a narrative), and Thompson perfectly describes my discomfort with the Caribbean, a place with terrible economic inequity supported by luxury resorts: “Harsh as it might sound, I don’t want to spend a week sunbathing in a place with a cultural foundation so poisonous that even the pirates who made the place famous didn’t stay long.”

That’s typical of Thompson’s writing style; a cynical, frequently bawdy, no-holds barred style that has far more in common with men’s magazines (Thompson’s credits include Maxim, Esquire, Playboy, and Spy, as well as National Geographic and the L.A. Times) than resort-review travel writing or even adventure travel.

The chapters which provide more-or-less practical suggestions for travelers, ranging from “lie” to “tip early” and “stop being so entitled” are entertaining and offer some useful advice (how useful depends on your personal morality).

But I found myself wishing for more cultural insight (however cynical or negative) like the Caribbean chapter, or “Is It OK to Miss the Cold War? The Philosophical Dilemma of Eastern Europe,” one of the few places in the West I’ve seen the Soviet nostalgia I encountered when I studied in Russia as an undergraduate. These chapters are Thompson’s best, in my opinion, for they truly present something the average traveler will benefit from learning: social information left out of much mainstream travel writing. Thompson’s writing style makes even these chapters cynically funny, but not in a crass way.

Smile While You’re Lying offers a variety of things to the reader -- whether the same reader will want all of them equally is less certain. But Smile While You’re Lying is definitely a lot more fun than a book about spa vacations.

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson
Holt Paperbacks
ISBN: 0805082093
324 Pages