Short Takes

Email|Print| Text size + By Amanda Heller
January 13, 2008

Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer
By Chuck Thompson
Holt, 324 pp., paperback, $15

If there is such a pastime as extreme tourism, Chuck Thompson is surely its guru. This gonzo memoir turns the travel-writing genre inside out and upside down and gives it a good whack.

Thompson, editor of the short-lived Travelocity magazine, scorns most travel writing as unabashed promotional treacle designed to lure couch potatoes onto cruise ships. By contrast, his "Smile When You're Lying" begins with an off-color episode in a bar in Bangkok, evidently the global epicenter of off-color episodes. In his hard-core peregrinations Thompson has been mugged by Thai coeds, fended off the amorous advances of a machete-wielding Filipino highwayman, shared his bed with an army of aggressive ants in the Brazilian hinterlands, and gone back for more.

Even though the typical touristic couch potato is unlikely to encounter, let alone seek out, these or similar experiences, Thompson - gifted with mordant wit and free with his scalding opinions, not least of his own unredeemed self - makes reading about them as much fun as more sedentary types generally have in the average month.

A Father's Law
By Richard Wright
Harper Perennial, 320 pp., paperback, $14.95

To mark the centenary of Richard Wright's birth, Julia Wright has edited for publication the novel her father left unfinished when he died in Paris, in 1960. A departure, or at least a diversion, for the author of "Black Boy" and "Native Son," "A Father's Law" is, in the language of Wright's adopted France, a roman policier. Ruddy Turner, a black police captain in Chicago, is appointed chief of police in an upscale suburb being victimized by a serial killer. Conscientious but unimaginative, Ruddy seeks out various authorities in an effort to understand the anarchic impulses driving the murderer. One such source is his son, a brilliant but troubled sociology student who, a horrified Ruddy begins to realize, is looking a lot like a suspect.

By 1960 Wright had spent over a decade in self-imposed exile, out of touch with the American idiom and American reality, a problem all too evident here. The language is stilted, and unlike Wright's classics of racial identity, this sketchy novel has virtually nothing to say about race, treating as literally unremarkable the appointment of a black police chief in the Jim Crow America that Wright himself had fled. Given more time, how would he have refined the book? How would he have ended it, no minor consideration in a detective story? As it stands, "A Father's Law" constitutes a mere footnote to the entirety of Wright's tragically abbreviated career.

Finding Jefferson: A Lost Letter, a Remarkable Discovery, and the First Amendment in an Age of Terrorism
By Alan Dershowitz
Wiley, 244 pp., $25.95

In this latest of his many books, legal scholar and celebrity advocate Alan Dershowitz pays tribute to three of his favorite things: collecting (everything from baseball cards to first editions); the Argosy Bookstore in New York, source of several of his most prized possessions; and Thomas Jefferson, who needs no introduction.

Through the Argosy, Dershowitz came into a rare find, a previously unknown letter written by Jefferson in 1801, early in his presidency, in response to a sermon preached by a controversial clergyman touching on the question of free speech, an issue after Dershowitz's own heart. A firm believer in the marketplace of ideas, Jefferson argues for absolute freedom of speech, maintaining that if all opinions are given expression, the best will necessarily rise to the top, a position that Dershowitz more or less shares, with some post-9/11 caveats.

Dershowitz deconstructs Jefferson's arguments with intense scholarly acumen, which is both good news and bad for the casual reader, who may be (a) dazzled, (b) left in the dust, or (c) caught wondering if the author has not to some extent simply asked "WWJD?" (What would Jefferson do?) and declared his own predispositions conveniently blessed.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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