Anthony Bourdain is gone. I can’t believe I’m writing that sentence. Television personalities rarely resonate with me, but for reasons as voluminous as a Pynchon novel, Bourdain was my kinda guy. As a chef, he’d had a checkered past, wasn’t entirely employable in the most mainstream of kitchens and yet he knew food in a way that many alleged chefs do not. As a writer, he cared not one whit for journalism, instead preferring to get at truths less objective and yet more vibrant.
For reasons I can’t comprehend, Bourdain’s work was classified as reality TV, and in the strictest sense, that was true; he presented reality. But without descending into cynicism, it’s fair to observe that only in America can we pervert a concept so simple as what constitutes the world around us. The fact that CNN produced Bourdain’s series Parts Unknown is a testament to how accurate a portrait of the world around him he portrayed; he presented a world not easily accessed by outsiders, using food as a catalyst for exploration.
The way he used local dishes as a medium for discovery affirmed for me the way I’ve used the bicycle as a way to apprehend the world around me. When I came to cycling, the bike was an end in itself. Increasingly, it is a means to an end, and that evolution was confirmed for me by Bourdain’s increasingly unscripted exploits in far flung places.
What Bourdain practiced has come to be known as immersion journalism, the 21st century’s response to the new journalism of the 1960s and ’70s. In it the boundary between the reporter (if we are to use that term) and the subject blurs, sometimes disappearing altogether. It is a necessarily introspective exploit and makes no claim to be the final word on its subject. This matters to me because when I write about the world around me, I’m writing about what I find interesting. Who I am inevitably shades my work and it was encouraging to me to see a guy as feisty as Bourdain engage his endeavor with strong opinions and yet great empathy, with vast knowledge and yet a flawed past. We shared a taste for altered states of consciousness. If there is room for Bourdain, I calculated, there’s probably room for me.
But suicide. This guts me like a field-dressed deer. A man like Bourdain has resources—almost certainly a killer health plan that doesn’t leave out dental, or psych. The pain of an injured soul cohabitates with isolation; there’s no separating chicken from egg in this because those of us who have traveled that road rarely have the faculties necessary to function as our own service writer, at least, not while walking the darkness.
I’ve spent more time confused and isolated than I care to admit and I’ve been lost enough to have thoughts no one should think. Loneliness will kill if left unchecked. What tears at me is the aftermath of his absence. The blast radius of a suicide can vaporize bedrock miles away. We know that suicides go up in the months that follow and those closest to him see the likelihood of their mortality rise like mercury in sunlight.
A friend said to me today that what hurt in Bourdain’s death was how his death flies in the face of what we liked about him. He was, in her words, the coolest guy around, a man everyone wanted to hang out with. One of my favorite compliments of him and his work came when he won a Peabody Award in 2013; the judges praised his show Parts Unknown for “expanding our palates and horizons in equal measure.”
We’ve lost a real man, someone who squared his shoulders to all he couldn’t accept and yet carried compassion without seeming soft. His was a spine that was no stiffer than necessary, his sense of the world no more complicated than enjoying a meal with people you care about.
Images courtesy CNN
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