I had only been in Portland a couple of days when I woke one morning to check the news to learn Anthony Bourdain had killed himself. It gave me pause. It was 5:30 am and the sun had been up for almost an hour. I put my tablet down, got off the couch and wandered into the kitchen. It was a big enough shock to learn he was dead at the age of 61 but the fact that he was dead by his own hand was incomprehensible.
I found a copy of Kitchen Confidential not long after it was published in 2000 and the book positively resonated with me. Strong, honest writing about a subject – cooking – written around tales of impropriety so well told that I became an immediate fan. I had dropped out just months before, leaving a Silicon Valley career behind for a life not so dissimilar from the one Bourdain lived: minus [of course] the professional food career, the best selling book and the whole paid-to-eat/travel thing.
But probably like a lot of other people, I identified with the guy. He was Philip Roth’s Everyman, in the sense he was a man born to die, not born to win, an admitted failure, and a man who had definitely plateaued – right up until Kitchen Confidential propelled him to stardom.
As I said I identified with him. We were the same age and without question both a product of the culture of our times. And unquestionably we had both read a lot of the same fiction that featured constructs of the same mad beautiful loser (Examples: The Ginger Man. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. On the Road. The Beautiful and the Damned. The Sheltering Sky. Ninety-Two in the Shade. Nobody’s Angel. Tropic of Cancer. Need more?) So it is probably no coincidence our similarities included an almost profane disregard for the status quo, a love of genuineness, and a painful contrary attitude toward consequences.
And I too for a long while was a fairly hardcore, off-the-map traveler with a serious appetite for indigenous cuisines. So when his TV show came out I got a lot of enjoyment from watching and comparing his episodes to my own travel experiences. For example, I beat him to Cambodia by a couple of years. Not important in the grand scheme of things but more a reflection on unavoidable comparisons.
During his Cambodia episode I remember his very sober pronouncement that the Tonle Sap River was ‘dangerous’, ‘the end of the world’, or other such prepared for a TV audience type hyperbole. I personally found that to be true – or kind of true – depending on which particular native you happened to query on the subject but the river journey itself proved to have been one of the highlights of my travel in SE Asia.
I’ve watched all of his episodes – in fact most of them are still archived on multiple hard drives – and many of them I’ve seen more than once. With the possible exception of Africa and New Zealand I believe I’ve been just about everywhere he had traveled, and eaten a lot or most of the same foods. So this guy – his tastes and opinions – really mattered to me.
And he was one articulate son-of-a-bitch. I thought Kitchen Confidential was one of the greatest pieces of experiential life writing since Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Seriously. Just because Bourdain framed his life experiences around the kitchen oft times wickedly encapsulated in brilliant black humor doesn’t make his philosophies any less valuable then a guy like Pirsig who bracketed his views on life amidst motorcycle tales interspersed with much tedious and terse, highly unnecessary third person past tense narratives on mental health.
And while Pirsig quite deservedly drove himself to lunacy while trying to decipher (aka quantify) the ephemeral nature of quality, Bourdain too had lingering demons of his own to destroy.
So why did he do it? The most socially palatable answer I heard was depression. But I don’t buy that. Way too easy. No. I think the true reason is to be found more easily in another century. Like in a malaise that couldn’t be masked by either booze or medication.
Much like in how Hemingway couldn’t envision being an old man, it is equally possible Bourdain couldn’t envision a future any more promising than his present. And if the present appears to be just another repetition of yesterday then the future itself holds no promise. In other words, he couldn’t find (didn’t have) anything to live for. Which, when you think about it, is the granddaddy mucho prima-facie existential crisis of all.
But then again, who really knows? Maybe I am wrong. Maybe the poor, sad son-of-a-bitch was just depressed. And if that’s true, then now I’m depressed. Because that seems like one poor fucking excuse to kill yourself.
What are some reasonable excuses to suicide anyway? My dick doesn’t work anymore? Maybe. The bitch left me? No, definitely not. I can’t taste food anymore? Possibly. Depressed? No. Absolutely not. Why does suicide seem in so many cases to be just about the most selfish thing a person could ever do? Probably because it is.
The cure for depression back before we all became such a sad lot of mopey fucks was to go out and get into a fight; get your ass kicked. Go get drunk. Get laid or do something positively stupid like jam a hand into a meat grinder. Feel pain. Get some remorse. Reacquaint yourself with the insane joy of total inebriation.
If I ever cried over some trivial matter as a little kid, some adult would often growl, “Keep it up and I’ll give you something to really cry about.”
That fatuous childhood memory concludes all the insensitive shit I have to say on the subject of depression and suicide.
But I’ll end with this.
You’ll be missed Tony. And from time to time I’ll remember you, along with the other cadre of exploding stars who disappeared from my life much too soon.