On Anthony Bourdain in a Tearing World

- | 2

I made the mistake of trying to write about Anthony Bourdain with old episodes of Parts Unknown playing in the background. His sudden jarring death demanded words and witness both, so the balance seemed simple enough, an earnest attempt at paying my honest respect.

Then again, nothing about that work was built for the background. I settled randomly on Season 3, which began in Punjab Province, and the voice and sights and sounds enraptured my attention like an urgent sermon. The staccato storytelling felt as new, suckering me into believing this was one I somehow hadn’t seen. I had, possibly twice, and stopped what I was writing to watch it anyway.

There’s an intoxicating verve to them, a pace and cadence apart from Bourdain’s contemporaries. How food and history and politics are tapestried together with such delicate deftness. Moving from human to human and scene to scene, embracing each on their level, cameras just as invisible to the subject as they are to you. It’s the kind of show that straight-up shapes the viewer’s desires, to where the question “Where in the world would you go if you could go there now?” is the episode you saw last—the meal you most want, whatever stranger’s table he made you share. And so I couldn’t write, not right away, because the beauty of what he created, then as now, simply stole my imagination.

Only this time, the reverence is cut with confusion. You read into the shades and cocksure gait a poise that’s utterly intractable. This is someone who understands precisely where they’re going and why, in life, in craft, on any sunbaked street or arborous boulevard he happens to be smelling. In conversation, be the topic food or something barely tangential (like tripe), Bourdain navigates nuance and niche with the tack of a seawise journo, proud port-ward bent aside.

He speaks lovingly of childhood, of family, of friendships forged in kitchen fires and over broken bread in travels even he concedes were an embarrassment of riches. A man who both acknowledges the absurd sequence of forces that sired his career and believes—or carries the air, at least—that he was born to do exactly this. And then you remember he ended it all, eighty-sixed the trip, traded knowing the world’s woes and wonders with a near-peerless depth and ferventness for literally anything else. You remember this, and the image of it sinks you like an anchor.

After confusion comes the anger. A kind that’s acutely self-aware, in all the ways these tragedies should be teaching us: about the futility of surmising someone’s pain, the folly inherent in conflating confident posture with true wellbeing—but a fleeting anger nonetheless. Asked whose job I’d most like to have, Bourdain was named without a second breath. Surely you would never betray such gifts. Surely, given this life of sensuous verve and immersive encounters, suffering and anguish needn’t apply.

You recognize the grave naivety of these thoughts and rationalize them still. I certainly did. But once the vainness of these close-fisted flails connects with only air, you’re left gasping and grasping for what so many who’ve endured a loss to suicide are forced to lean on, broken and devoid of answers, until those planes once again maybe, hopefully converge: imperfect memories.

The first episode I saw was “Iceland.” I can’t recall the exact scene, though it may have been just before the fermented shark. What I do remember is being instantly drawn to the narrative pace, ditto the commanding presence of Bourdain himself. This particular chapter was filmed in winter, a time when the sun barely musters a cameo, and there must’ve been something about the freeze-hearth back-and-forth that strummed a familiar chord, having been similarly mired in hibernation myself.

A friend of mine, a fellow cook with whom I’d helmed a line years before, positively revered the man, plugging his book during smoke breaks and whatever turn-and-burn moments most harkened its juice. To call that first half episode a revelation would be hyperbolic. I was hooked, however, and inhaled his entire TV canon as quickly as I could. A sweeping journey awaited, complete with warmer climes and an ever-blossoming belief in Bourdain’s effortless gift for wine and song.

By the time our son Everett was born the following spring, I’d taken to recycling old episodes between new cuts of Parts Unknown, often while bouncing him to sleep on an exercise ball in the hours before my 5-to-2 a.m. writing shift. It never got stale. “Detroit” alone I watched no fewer than three times in a summer. Bourdain was as staple a routine as tummy time or midnight wakeups, a near-daily escape that had the fortunate virtue of being profoundly informative and poignant.

When Rett was diagnosed with cancer that November, our world and purview shrank to the size of a hospital room. Media of every kind became transactional, a respite of denial, a focus so distant from daily life as to be interstellar. We barely noticed the calories we consumed, let alone what fare to seek on the streets of Glasgow or ranches of Montana. Our mantra was survival, of our baby boy and of whatever modicum of normalcy remained. I might’ve stolen an episode here or there. Likely on the Kindle during my post-midnight shift of keeping Rett asleep.

He died the following February, at sunset on a Sunday, after four months of chemo and a last-ditch trip to St. Jude. The subsequent weeks unfurled in a blur of sorrow and sympathy and making plans for Rett’s memorial and how we’d honor him through the throbbing life to come. In April, Deana and I embarked on a two-week sojourn to Spain and Portugal. We spent what would’ve been Rett’s first birthday at Montserrat, where we touched the Black Virgin and lit a candle for our son amid his fellow thousands. Tethered though we were to our trauma, it was a chance to be human again, to wade ankles-deep into beauty and history and the pearls of perspective suspended in each.

Bourdain was part of the early healing, one of the scant few things that made me feel I was or might be somewhere else, a plane ride past the place we watched our son stop breathing. The dark corners Bourdain revealed—the ugliness and utterly human sins—became part and parcel of the vagabond bliss. It was precisely because we’d unearthed the blunt brutality of life, how it thrills to make meals of us all, that the toasts and grease-sheened plates had me aching to know his silver-haired secrets. He’d become a hero, a vessel for my horribly scarred designs, and I can’t help but ponder whether the collective weight of that brand of worship—the kind that happens between commercial breaks—didn’t somehow hasten his despair.

There’s a series of scenes in the Buenos Aires episode where a couch-splayed Bourdain confides in a psychiatrist—Argentinians are per capita tops in this regard, apparently—about his various, seemingly amateur neuroses. About eating an airport hamburger and succumbing to a days-long spiral of depression.

“I’d like to be happy,” he says, in a way that only sounds serious in retching hindsight. “I’d like to be happier. I should be happy. I’ve had incredible luck. I’d like to look out the window and say, ‘Hey! Life is good!’ But I don’t.”

If not for the clue-searching lens, I’d have likely dusted the scenes aside. Not because Bourdain’s conveyance wasn’t sincere. Rather, because anyone might’ve let slip the same—present included. These are the things one expects an admitted libertine and lifelong outcast to say, after all. Tortured artist, fill in the rest. But processing what I had—the circumstances surrounding his death, a hundredfold more the daughter bereft her father’s presence and love—the pain was there, gnawing through whatever tunnels it takes to reach and breach the slowly crumbling will.

Absent an answer, speculation fills the gaps. Maybe he couldn’t square his genuine empathy and the white guilt that birthed it. Perhaps all the mirror saw was a failed novelist cursed to TV stardom. That there was some heinous act none of us knew. Absent an answer, depression—this pain below the name—crawls camouflaged towards the light.

Mostly I’ll miss him. His snout-to-tale lust for life. The way he turned simple food into accolades. How he made his country listen before it spoke and think before it ate. Bourdain and Zamir wandering Chernobyl in a last-night haze. I’ll miss him because he cared about people—their stories, memories, and mothers’ recipes—even knowing their inherent doom.

The world is tearing too fast to lose that kind of ever-weaving thread. The one always aiming to pull it all together, wound by infected wound and damn the collateral blood, to where scars are all that’s left to heal. Whether he believed it or not, whether the wound creators know it or not, Bourdain was a healer. The kind that pulls so tight for so long through so many wounds you wonder how it never broke before.

Image: Flickr/Anna Hanks