Next June, it will be five years since the news broke that Anthony Bourdain had been found dead in a hotel room in France. He lived what at least look at like the ideal life, and then he no longer wanted it. He left no note or big sign that he was going to kill himself. This means that those of us who respected him must continue to live and feel that void when we see his face appear somewhere or hear his voice in a rerun of one of his television shows. Like so many others, I was hurt by Bourdain’s death. I talked about it with my shrink. If you feel the same as me, try extending just a teaspoon of empathy and think of his family and friends. Anyone who has lost someone to suicide knows that hole never closes; they can tell you that it is one of the worst injuries to bear.
That’s why when I saw the word “unauthorized” describe Anthony Bourdain’s new biography, Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain by Charles Leerhsen, I first thought it was something I didn’t really intend to read. Authorized or not, when the subject of a biography is someone who committed suicide without even giving a reason or a farewell, then the book still takes on the shadow of a mystery. It’s not so much about the subject’s life as about its end, and an attempt to understand that, whether the book says so explicitly or not. “We never had this big story, this long piece that tells what happened, how the guy with the best job in the world killed himself,” Leerhsen told the New York Times on his reason for writing the book.
But I wondered why he died, and a book like Leerhsen’s appeals to that vulnerability. It’s what people in the magazine business might call a “sexy” story. The chef-turned-writer-turned-star kills himself and we search for answers. And the thing is Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain is far from your garden variety operating trash can. Well written so there you go. As the press around the book promises, Leerhsen interviews dozens of people, including Bourdain’s ex-girlfriends and old friends who had been in his orbit at various times in his life. (He says he was also turned down by more than one, including the repairmen who helped Bourdain move to various parts of the world and the friend who found him dead, Chef Eric Ripert.)
Still, the interviews offer nothing you can’t read online about what the man was like off-camera. For the most part, the book repackages anecdotes that are already circulating the internet or told in the creepy AI-created voice of the late leader in last year’s documentary. Roadrunner: a film about Anthony Bourdain– Bourdain’s story as a teenage outcast from suburban New Jersey, or the one behind the New Yorker story that propelled him into the national spotlight.
In the opening sentences of the book, it’s hard not to detect a little hero worship: it’s about setting up Bourdain’s old trope as “the epitome of cool”, how he was “a Jersey boy in the sad smile that combined extremely high standards with the underrated art of not giving a fuck in a way that seemed to excite both genders You wanted to be him or do it, especially if you heard the gossip about his gargantuan member .
But thirty pages later, the tone shifts to analytics. There’s a coldness to the way the book talks about family issues, depression, or the darkness of addiction. When Pierre Bourdain, the father of “poor Tony”, writes Leerhsen, “had his fatal heart attack, Tony was, at thirty, still a crack addict who cracked clams at the raw bar of a West Village restaurant and felt like he had failed to make his father proud and now it was too late.
In the eyes of his unauthorized biographer, it seems, the “charmingly patinated, supernaturally curious pilgrim whom we obediently followed to Hong Kong, Brooklyn and Antarctica” must be taken down a few notches. Leerhsen defies the dead by writing on “Don’t eat before you read this”, Bourdain’s 1999 New Yorker article that launched him on the path to stardom – and the “bad boy chef as the new rockstar” trope that too many less interesting people have tried to copy. He wonders, “Was Tony really capable of producing New Yorker– quality prose? Noting that Bourdain said publishers barely touched his manuscript there, he writes, “That’s of course what all writers will tell you.” Maybe Leerhsen would tell you.
There’s also just a sleazy feeling overall. When Leerhsen describes the tricks of the trade he used to elicit information from the “about eighty-five” interviews he did for the book, he pulls back a curtain to show us how he got what he did. he wanted people:
Assuming we hadn’t already discussed his death, my last questions usually centered on that topic, which common sense suggested we tackle after we had bonded a bit. “You must have been shocked”, I would say [empathy, flattery]’but I wonder if you might have noticed any, I don’t know [modesty, faux spontaneity], a seed of self-destruction in the Tony you knew at the time that ultimately led him to take his own life. Most (including people who had lived with him) responded with some variation: “No way, he never seemed the least bit depressed.” But whenever someone gave the second most popular answer, “Well, he had a dark side,” I gently pressed him on what he meant.
The fact that Leerhsen talks about how he got people to talk about someone’s death creates a stench that’s hard to get rid of throughout the book. It’s the reading equivalent of watching someone smell their own undeodorized armpits. Leerhsen, whose other books focus on characters like controversial baseball great Ty Cobb and Old West bank robber Butch Cassidy, is a journalist by trade, and he apparently saw a chance to speak his mind. thought to be interesting and, yes, maybe a sexy story.
The book as a whole feels like a seesaw between the author’s hero worship of the subject and his bewildered gaze at the tragedy. “Who among us doesn’t prefer a little polish on our truth? Arrangement, emphasis, refinement – that’s the difference between a handcrafted memory job and an unreadable data dump,” he wrote at one point. “Only those who never put their noses near a book demand ‘just the facts’ – which, in any case, must be delivered in an order that reflects bias and affects their interpretation.” He writes about Bourdain’s literary output, but it’s really hard not to feel like he’s making an excuse for his own book, whether he knows it or not. Then, after more than 200 pages recounting Bourdain’s story – from suburban crackpot to drug-addicted cook to dying celebrity – the book comes to its central question: “Did Tony want to kill himself or not?”
There is this famous quote from Voltaire about what we owe to the living and the dead. Those who are still with us must be given respect; for the deceased, the philosopher believed that we owe them “only the truth”. This is ultimately why I approach any biography of someone who is no longer around with great skepticism. Using Bourdain’s life and work as a way to examine his suicide, reading the story of a human being descending deeper into a very dark place, I really didn’t want to go on. I didn’t want to read the lascivious details of Bourdain’s relationship with Argento that have been torn up and down by the media since his death, and I didn’t need to enter the hotel room where life of Bourdain ended. The book wanted to take me there.