According to Portland scribe Chuck Thompson, most travel writing is obsessed with pleasing the travel industry itself and doesn't deliver the whole story, serving up "copy softened by corporate considerations... limited even more egregiously by the merciless hammer of political correctness." The result is an endless stream of bad writing and watered-down, eager-to-please clichés. Quoting the writer Sallie Tisdale in his new book, Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, Thompson laments, "The modern reader... has the misfortune of living in a time when travel literature is booming and good travel writers are few and far between."
Personal definitions of what constitutes good travel writing aside, the fact remains that Thompson, a veteran of the trade, has traveled a lot. And while visiting more than 35 countries and publishing over 2,000 travel stories, he's accumulated a wealth of gritty, dirty, sometimes dangerous tales that none of his previous employers would dream of publishing. Smile collects the best of them, and the results are fascinating and frequently hilarious, thanks to Thompson's wicked humor. For instance, he writes that teaching English to the Japanese is like "making panda babies—an extremely delicate procedure requiring repeated attempts and resulting in constant disappointment." In an episode spent battling aggressive ants in a Latin American hotel room, he writes, "Where I come from ants are pretty easy to deal with, but on the horn of South America, it takes more than girlish screams and a heavy shoe to repel them." And while hitchhiking through Canada he describes a hippie German couple's baby as smelling "like the bottom of a bag of beef jerky."
Perhaps because he wants so badly to turn traditional travel writing on its ear, Thompson's diatribes become almost vengeful and even mean-spirited at times. But he is a funny and charming enough guide to pull it off; besides, as he eloquently reminds us, "one of the best things about being a traveler is complaining about the parts you don't like." Apparently, it's one of the best things about reading about being a traveler as well. JUSTIN W. SANDERS