Top positive review
I Miss Tony...
Reviewed in the United States on September 28, 2021
I'm not the type of guy that goes gaga for celebrities or obsesses over them, but Anthony Bourdain was a rare exception to that rule. I connected with him over the course nearly two decades of television between No Reservations, The Layover, The Taste, and Parts Unknown, not to mention his books, Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw. (I have, but have not yet read, his comics, which include two volumes of Get Jiro and Hungry Ghosts.) I share a birthday with his death day, and remember waking up the morning of June 8, 2018 to the news that he had hung himself in a French hotel while filming his CNN series. I've never really mourned or grieved the loss of a celebrity before, at least not in anyway beyond a superficial, "Man, that sucks, it's a shame they won't be making any more movies or books or music" kind of way. Bourdain's suicide hit me hard, though, and even though I did not know him, it hit with me all the force of a lost friend or relative. Honestly, I'm still not over this loss, or the loss of what could have been given Bourdain's talents and potential. The fact of the matter is that, although I didn't know him, I kinda-sorta did. We all did. I had invited him into my home every week for years. I shared meals with the man. He introduced me to people and places I could not otherwise know. I sipped on hot coffee or glasses of whiskey while he told me stories of life as a line-chef or shared his irrational fear of the Swiss. While we didn't share addictions, we both certainly shared common ground in terms of mental health issues, which often led to dark jokes and wry, negatively-charged observations from each of us. Anthony Bourdain possessed a level of authenticity and honesty that was impossible to ignore, and he meant a lot to a lot of people around the world who never really knew him.
Reading Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography, it's clear that those impressions were hardly a fluke. The line separating Bourdain the person from Bourdain the TV character was narrowly thin. While there were certainly differences between who he was and what he allowed himself to reveal in front of the TV camera, what you saw or read was largely who he really was. A brilliant writer, a charismatic and funny host, a lover of food and travel and people, constantly curious and knowledgable, narcissistic but also incredibly self-aware, one of the coolest cats around but a giant nerd at heart, an introvert in many ways, but one who could command the attention of an entire room and made himself the center of that attention and who gave his time selflessly to those around him. A former heroin addict, Bourdain was constantly finding and feeding new addictions to keep him clean, from travel to jiu jitsu, and romantic obsessions that he knew were doomed, such as his love affair with Asia Argento.
Writer and editor Laurie Woolever was Bourdain's personal assistant, his lieutenant, for over a decade and co-authored Appetites: A Cookbook and World Travel: An Irreverent Guide with him. For The Definitive Oral Biography, she interviewed over 90 people that knew Bourdain at various points of his life, including his brother, Christopher, his mother, Gladys (who passed away in 2020), ex-wives Nancy and Ottavia, daughter Ariane, and those who worked closest with him, such as producer-director for Zero Point Zero Production, Helen Cho and Tom Vitale (whose own book about working and traveling with Bourdain, In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, releases in September), Bourdain's literary agent Kimberly Weatherspoon, chefs José Andrés, Nigella Lawson (who co-hosted The Taste with Bourdain), Eric Ripert, and Roy Choi, as well as David Simon and Eric Overmyer, the cocreators of the HBO series, Treme, for which Bourdain wrote, movie director Darren Aronofsky, CNN reporters Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, and president of CNN worldwide, Jeff Zucker, and many, many, many more.
Through all these various personalities, we're given an incredibly well-rounded, and, more importantly, honest, portrait of the late Bourdain, the good, the bad, and the ugly. As Woolever notes in her introduction, this biography is far from a hagiography and makes no attempts to deify the man it's about, just as Bourdain no doubt would have wanted. There's no sugar-coating the lesser aspects of Bourdain's personality, his addictions, or the questionable decisions he made along the way, including his toxic relationship with Argento and his final choice to commit suicide at the age of 61 in a Le Chambard hotel room. Even a year or two removed from Bourdain's death, you can feel the shock and grief and confusion in the words of those interviewed as they continue to struggle with the emotional fallout and process his reasons and behavior during the last year of his life as he was consumed by his affections and infatuation for Argento, a relationship that Bourdain was keenly aware was doomed to fail right from the start, telling friends, "It's gonna end so badly." Neither Bourdain or Argento come across particularly well in the accountings and recollections compiled here of that time, with the latter almost appearing as a virtual hurricane that upended Bourdain's life and wreaked devastation upon those closest to him, while Bourdain himself kowtows to the Italian actresses demands at the expense of his own long-term personal and professional relationships, and, ultimately, seemingly, his own mental health and well-being.
Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography is a wide-ranging exploration of the man's life and larger-than-life legacy from those who knew him best. It's not always a pleasant read, particularly in the build-up to, and exploration of the aftermath of, his suicide, but for fans of the man hoping for a peek behind the curtain it certainly is a necessary read, for better or worse.
[Note: I received an advance copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]