Matt Forney
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Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm

do-travel-writers-go-to-hellNOTE: This is a review of one of my favorite recent travel memoirs, originally published at In Mala Fide on January 5, 2012.

I referred to this travel memoir in my original review of Roosh’s A Dead Bat in Paraguay as another example of a young man suffering a quarter-life crisis and going on a journey abroad to cure himself. Now, I’ve decided to give Thomas Kohnstamm’s story of sleaze and scandal the full treatment. While weak in some areas, Travel Writers is an outstanding entry in the travelogue genre and a must read for young men today.

As I mentioned in my Paraguay review, Kohnstamm achieved some minor notoriety when Travel Writers was released four years ago due to its muckraking angle. The book concerns part of Kohnstamm’s tenure as a writer for Lonely Planet, where he claimed to have fabricated parts of the guidebooks he wrote or contributed to. He even claimed to have contributed to Lonely Planet’s guide to Colombia without having set foot in the country, getting all the information from his then-girlfriend, who worked at the Colombian consulate in San Francisco. Despite all the furor, only about a quarter of Travel Writers at best can be considered an expose on the travel writing industry; the rest is riveting travel memoir.

In the opening chapters, Kohnstamm writes about the alienation he felt that drove him to abandon his life to roam Brazil. His story is familiar: after struggling in minimum-wage hell with his useless Latin American Studies degree (at one point, he was working the women’s dressing room at a Club Monaco), he stumbles into a high-paid Wall Street cubicle job. Even with money coming in and an attractive girlfriend, Kohnstamm still feels lost and aimless:

I stare blankly at my computer screen. I want to gouge out my eyes with paper clips and gash my wrists with manila folders. Why am I sitting here, aiding and abetting white-collar criminals and merging with my ergonomically correct office chair, when I should be on the beach in Brazil?

After getting an email offer from Lonely Planet to write the next edition of their Brazilian guidebook, the seed of doubt is planted in Kohnstamm’s mind. Finally, after a conversation with his bitchy social striver girlfriend, Kohnstamm throws up his arms, tells his bosses to go fuck themselves, and walks out on his old life. After a rum and cocaine-fueled night of “fuck[ing] up New York City” with his crackpot pal the Doctor, Kohnstamm hops on the earliest flight to Rio. It doesn’t take him long to realize that not only is Lonely Planet’s deadline of less than two months too short for him to effectively do his job (covering the entirety of northeastern Brazil), he’s on the verge of bankruptcy, his advance being absolutely pitiful.

Travel Writers’ style veers wildly between the nihilistic, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude of gonzo journalism and the prissy, uptight diction of SWPLtopia. Kohnstamm is surprisingly good about keeping sentimentality to a minimum, as shown in an episode near the middle of the book where he hooks up with a Brazilian model in Olinda who turns out to be a… well, I won’t spoil it, but you can see the twist coming from a mile away. At the same time, he has an annoying habit of slipping into liberal arts psychobabble, such as when he starts blathering on about “cultural relativism” while watching a Brazilian guy beat the stuffing out of his woman in a dive bar. At times, the contrast makes the book feel schizophrenic, as if two entirely different people were narrating the same sequence of events.

Even still, the book is engaging, with Kohnstamm narrating his escapades with the right mix of frankness and exaggeration, whether he’s talking about his attempts to sell drugs, his narrow escape from the Brazilian police, or his brief affair with an Austrian stewardess who goes psycho stalker on him. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? is a funny, entertaining travel memoir and and a great read.

Click here to buy Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

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