Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain by Charles Leerhsen
Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: October 11, 2022
Genres: Non-fiction, Biography
When Anthony Bourdain died four years ago, most people were stunned. How could a man with so much to live for, a man adored by people around the globe, kill himself? He was a world traveler, sharing his love of food to show the commonalities rather than the differences between various cultures. In Down & Out in Paradise journalist Charles Leerhsen looks for answers in Bourdain’s own words—his texts and emails. He never divulges who gave him access to these materials, but they certainly excavate layers of the man the public never saw.
Given that Bourdain didn’t achieve recognition until he was in his 40s those years are the meat of Down and Out. His younger years and college read largely like an average middle-class kid, overlaid with serious maternal issues that saw him cutting his mother out of his life later. His desire to be a writer informed all his decisions, but the few prospects for earning money led him to working in kitchens and escaping via drugs. Most of this is well-trod territory, but Leerhsen fleshes it out with more detail before moving into the years of Bourdain’s success.
He was largely anti-commerce and even when success came, he railed against selling out with merchandise and other standard branding moneymakers. He tried to imbue his travel shows with the same ethic, which may be one of the reasons they were so popular. He simply wanted to travel, meet people, and experience other cultures.
Not surprisingly, most of the attention in Down and Out is focused on the last two years of Bourdain’s life when he was separated (but never divorced) from his wife Ottavia. He began dating Asia Argento, an Italian actress almost 20 years younger with whom he had a stormy on-off relationship. It’s their texts in the last days of his life that form the crux of popular theories about his death. I’ll leave it at that.
If you’re a fan of Bourdain’s work, his talent, and his gifts, there’s nothing new to be learned in Down and Out in Paradise. He had a number of personal issues and Leerhsen succeeds in bringing those to light, but for what purpose? Is there anything to be learned from how troubled he was? Not really. This is just sad reading about one lost man.
If you’re an Anthony Bourdain fan and want to learn more about his life, from the people who knew him, I recommend Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography.
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