I don’t like finishing essay books from beginning to end. I like reading them in random order, sometimes, only reading 1-2, leaving it for a month, and then coming back to the rest. The best nonfiction collections I’ve read feel like conversations as in The Worst Motorcycle in Laos by Chris Tharp. Tharp’s collection is like Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance if it took place in Asia and featured cobras for lunch, capsule-sized beds in a neon-lit Tokyo, and a standup comedy show in “Korea’s hinterlands.” While the foreign strangeness of Asia has its appeal, it’s the introspection and reflection on the tragedies that have torn the continent apart that compel. As Tharp states in the introduction:
“This book is by no means exhaustive, nor am I attempting to show off my traveler’s stripes… I do believe it’s possible to take a day trip to your neighboring county in Missouri and write a compelling travel piece about it. It’s been said many times before, but good travel writing is about the writer’s personal journey, rather than the external trip itself.”
In “Goldfish in their Zoos,” there’s multiple themes tackling the disturbing complexity of mass murder, the sex trade, and animal zoos in Cambodia. It all begins with an upset stomach from some bad curry. While his stomach is in a “state of civil war,” he visits S-21, a high school used by the Khmer Rouge to execute political prisoners. “It is one thing to study genocide-to watch the films and read the books and hear the accounts of survivors… to visit the scene of the crime is another thing altogether-to see the gas chambers and touch the ovens with your bare hands-to walk amongst the spirits and absorb the horrible history… You feel useless in the face of such incomprehensible death… My soul felt sick.”
Illness, whether of his stomach, or his motorcycle, forces Tharp to destinations he hadn’t planned. Going off the beaten path leads to revelations that aren’t just culinary ones, but philosophical quandaries that push toilet seats as well as his conscience. In that sense, the dynamic of Tharp’s journey isn’t so much that of Asia as it is the landscape of humanity. At the same time, his mix of visceral pain, self-deprecating humor, and unique cultural idiosyncrasies pervade throughout the travelogs and make for some damn good conversations.
Cooked cobra with that beer, anyone?