Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Chuck Thompson's "To Hellholes and Back"

Chuck Thompson, the author of Smile When You’re Lying, is a former features editor for Maxim and was the first editor in chief of Travelocity magazine and served as part of the editorial team for the launch of CNNGo.com. He has traveled on assignment in more than thirty-five countries and his writing and photography have appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, National Geographic Adventure, Playboy, Spy, Escape, WWE Magazine, Outside, Men's Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford had a prodigious memory, so my guess is that this whole Page 99 business began as some sort of Victorian-era parlor trick that allowed the old show-off to recite from memory the text of page ninety-nine from any number of the books in the average blowhard’s study — a way to dazzle would-be hookups and elicit mid-cigar grunts of grudging admiration from their husbands.

For me, I found it a frustrating assignment. I can buy off on the idea that “the quality of the whole will be revealed” by a single page. Like most writers, I pay attention to every word on every page, so I’m satisfied that the quality of my writing might be judged from any random spot. But reducing an entire organism to one of its atoms is no more an accurate way of judging a book than a close examination of a toe is an accurate way of judging a person.

To Hellholes and Back revolves around trips to four “hellholes” — the Congo, India, Mexico City, Disney World.

Page 99 finds us in Africa/Congo and features one of the stranger things I noticed on safari in Botswana — a young Austrian guy who, in addition to nodding to villagers on roadsides, had discreetly begun waving at animals on game drives.

“I kept a watch on this curious behavior out of the corner of my eye and the funny thing was that after a while I noticed Rolf waved only at the nice animals. Giraffes, turtles, and baby impalas became regular recipients of his affable alpine salutations, while baboons, crocodiles, and wild boar were passed without acknowledgment.”

Page 99 includes the standard elements of my travel writing — a couple of one-liners, anecdote, a little social observation/criticism.

In that sense, one can make the case that it reflects the book and my writing. But I wouldn’t want to rely on anyone unfamiliar with my stuff to open the book in a store and, based solely on page 99, decide to take the thing up to the counter.
Read an excerpt from To Hellholes and Back, and learn more about the book and author at Chuck Thompson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue