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The International Writers Magazine: Review (from Our Archives)

Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?
By Thomas Kohnstamm
Three Rivers Press (2008), 272 pps
• John M. Edwards review
Unfortunately, if you missed it when it first came out, Thomas Kohnstamm’s sadly neglected criminally negligent book “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?” does not at all answer the medium-rare question it pretends to propose.

As a travel writer myself, I was interested in finding out whether I would be refused entrance past the Pearly Gates for something I had written or let slip by mistake. Often allegedly hired as CIA field agents, American travel writers’ psyches are filled with declassified information.

Travel Writers

I too wondered if our success in the popular genre of narrative travel essay writing (sounding so much like a dream job) is governed by sheer sweat and talent and luck, or just controlled by Mephistopheles, offering us fame and fortune in return for dangerous subpar copy on deadline.

       After all, danger is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Even if we (secretly) all long to be agents provocateurs in Algeria and war correspondents in Rwanda, most of us end up grounded curled into foetal position on couches with pretend colds watching “Desperate Housewives” or weeping over reruns of “Gentle Ben.”

       Anyway, even though Thomas Kohnstamm is a damned good writer with a knack for convincing dialogue and description, the book’s premise seemed at first a little mambypamby. Okay, great, so unskilled Thomas somehow lands a job as a researcher (or updater) for the Lonely Planet Guide to Brazil, managing to squeeze out his shoestring “Survival Kit” allowance into an enviable wildman trip enlivened by drugs, sex, and salsa.

       A Paid Advertisement, peradventure, rather than a passing postcard.

       To add to his dwindling budget, in violation of Lonely Planet policies and Interpol edicts, he gleefully admits upfront to both accepting freebies and briefly selling Ecstasy to his fellow travelers. Honesty like that is refreshing, especially with the dual consequences of being “blackballed” and “arrested” so flippantly brushed aside and escaped from.

       I don’t know, you just can’t help liking this guy, especially when he admits to questionable ethics and hedonistic tomfoolery. He describes in surprising detail “sitches” that most others keep their mouths shut about, such as sleeping with party girls (hookers) in search of modeling jobs. In addition, we all feel like we’ve really been to Brazil, since he obviously wrote down scenes in situ and visits every bar, restaurant, and hotel that he happens upon, loudly voicing his vacation “vocation” for free food, drinks, and sleeps.

       However, his descriptions of having to “computer format” everything is a useless fumble. As a former editor at Pocket Books in the Simon & Schuster Building in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center (sort of like working at The Daily Planet as “Clark Kent”), I know that this is a grunt-labor job usually confined to inhouse production editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders. Thomas has been duped. He makes the glamorous-sounding job of a guidebook writer come off more like being stuck holding the barfbag of nightmarishly naïve peons duped into a lifetime of busywork.

       Thomas sometimes misses the point: being a guidebook updater is not a real job: it is instead an invitation for perpetual motion and mooching.

       Worth reading, nah!

       No wait, maybe?!

       If Thomas has actually sold his soul on the dotted line for a byline stamped on books at Barnes & Noble’ s “Travel Essay” section, and to comp the steep entrance fee to Hell, then I would enthusiastically recommend this daredevil insider’s tell-all attempt at underbelly reportage and desperado controversy.

       It is amusingly blunt, and you can even occasionally smell the brimstone.

       After all, I did read this stylistically flawed but well paced page-turner in one sitting, probably reread almost as quickly as it was written, to meet the always looming deadline, which pops up occasionally as a painful subhead reminder. Amusingly honest and dangerously snitchy, Thomas Kohnstamm is damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Hence, he has his book out on Amazon ready to drop into your shopping cart still just in the nick of time, disguised as a a fairly recent sea change at showers and weddings and birthdays.

      How brave is that: selling your soul for nothing?!

© John M. Edwards, 2013

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