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Book Review: ‘Down and Out in Paradise,’ by Charles Leerhsen

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DOWN AND OUT IN PARADISE: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, by Charles Leerhsen


Anthony Bourdain would have hated that autocorrect turns his name into Boursin, a bland cheese with zero culinary credibility.

It’s surprising that predictive text doesn’t suggest his name first. Bourdain: He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead, as Rolling Stone said about Jim Morrison on a notorious 1981 cover.

Since his death by his own hand in France, in 2018, there’s been a steady drip of books and documentaries and television specials and magazine one-offs about his life and career.

On social media, he’s omnipresent in old clips, explaining how to make a Negroni or ripping the phrase “farm to table.” There are a lot of poignant Bourdain tattoos jiggling around out there.

A new biography, “Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain,” by Charles Leerhsen, is making news. It’s grittier than anything we’ve read about him before.

Here are the prostitutes, a lot of prostitutes, and one-night stands, and rumors of affairs with other food-world personalities.

Here is the use of steroids, human growth hormone and Viagra. Here are exact, disturbing details about his suicide. His heroin habit is recounted. So is his frequent coldness to many who loved and worked with him.

A previous book, “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography” (2021), compiled by Laurie Woolever, felt like an official Bourdain-industry product. It was worthy but dull.

It was heavy on pontificating celebrities, from the food, television and journalism worlds, who tried to puzzle out what made this magnificent, pagan, literate, lantern-jawed beast tick, to put him on the couch.

Leerhsen’s book, on the other hand, has a lot of people trying to join Bourdain on the couch, ideally without his trousers, and thus has more adrenaline and feels truer to life.

Most human beings have more desires than opportunities in life. Those whom the gods will destroy are provided with desire and opportunity in equal measure.

“Down and Out in Paradise” reminded me in certain ways of Albert Goldman’s muckraking 1981 biography of Elvis Presley. Leerhsen leans heavily, for example, on unnamed sources.

He’s not here, though, to discredit or dismiss his subject. His admiration for Bourdain is nearly always apparent. It’s hard to say if Bourdain would have liked this book. Either way, I suspect he would have admired the author’s guts.

“Down and Out in Paradise” is not the most subtle thing you’ll ever read. Leerhsen is a former executive editor at Sports Illustrated whose previous books include biographies of Ty Cobb and Butch Cassidy. His Bourdain book goes down like a mass-market rock bio.

I’d have loved it if I were 17. The author goes all in on Bourdain’s angst, his instinctive distrust of authority, his hero-worship of talented outsiders like Hunter S. Thompson and Iggy Pop and William S. Burroughs.

The older me, the one who prefers wine to fizz, wishes Leerhsen had more to say about things like: a) the elite and vernacular food worlds pre- and post-Bourdain; b) how Bourdain walked a moral tightrope across the conventions of travel writing and reporting, no mean feat for a wealthy white man in skinny jeans; and c) the sense that he was at the vanguard, more so than even the most scrutinized actors, of a new type of American masculinity. Here was an outdoor, rather than an indoor, cat.

You can’t have everything. Leerhsen sacrifices weight for speed.

He tracks Bourdain from his suburban New Jersey childhood — his parents had frustrated bohemian inclinations — to Vassar, where he followed the woman who would become his first wife. College did not appeal to him, but cooking did, its piratical side, and he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, a hidebound place at the time.

He worked in restaurants in Provincetown, Mass., and later New York, most notably the raffish French restaurant Les Halles, earning battle scars. He smoked four packs a day and had a big tank for alcohol, and for drugs.

He was a late bloomer. He published a first novel at 39. He studied unhappily with the editor Gordon Lish before writing the piece that changed his life.

“Don’t Eat Before Reading This: A New York Chef Spills Some Trade Secrets” appeared in The New Yorker in April 1999. The impact, in those mostly pre-internet days, is hard to overstate: There were television news trucks outside Les Halles the next day.

The essay was supposed to run in New York Press, an alternative weekly, but the paper accepted it and never printed it. The New Yorker piece, in which Bourdain sharpened his teeth on lax restaurant practices, led directly to his best-selling memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” and to everything that followed, particularly the increasingly well-made television shows.

Bourdain grew into his looks; his was the kind of face that inspired Talmudic levels of study among women. He grew into his shows. They got better, moodier, more complicated.

He had a million opportunities to sell out and vastly enrich himself. There are no Bourdain knife sets, or airport bistros.

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” Bourdain wrote in his 2002 book “A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines.”

Once you’ve read “Down and Out in Paradise,” you’ll never stop wanting to burn Bourdain’s cellphone and laptop. We learn he had a Google alert set to his own name. It gave him real-time, ego-stroking push notifications.

We learn he Googled the name Asia Argento — the Italian actress with whom he had a torrid, messy affair — several hundred times in the last three days of his life, after she rattled him by appearing in public with another man.

Their text messages are printed in the book. “You were reckless with my heart,” Bourdain wrote, before he hanged himself. The last website he visited was a prostitution service, Leerhsen writes, though he seems to have died alone.

“You need to have a lot of things go right in your life before you can become as miserable as Anthony Bourdain, by his late 50s, found himself — that is, before you can work your way to a position where you have so much to lose,” Leerhsen writes. “In Tony’s case it took decades to reach a height from which falling would matter.”

There’s an old joke in Hollywood that the film “Gandhi” was popular because Gandhi was everything people there wish they were: thin, tan and moral.

Bourdain — thin, tan (he was addicted to sunbeds) and mostly moral himself — is approaching secular sainthood. This book doesn’t merely light candles but scuffs him up. I doubt it will be the final word.


DOWN AND OUT IN PARADISE: The Life of Anthony Bourdain | By Charles Leerhsen | 308 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $28.99


If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.



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