Writer Chuck Thompson has a lot on his mind

By Andrew Williams

Chuck Thompson has a bone to pick with travel writers. He isn’t happy with the way the industry has developed and laments corporate influences on travel writing.

In his book, Smile When You’re Lying, he argues that travel writers — with a few exceptions — are beholden to their corporate owners, be it the magazines or publishers that they write for, or the resorts that they review. Thompson is quick-witted and his argument is compelling and well-reasoned.

The argument slides into a series of anecdotes from Thompson’s own travel experience. His narratives trace his travels all around the world — from his days as an ESL teacher in Japan, to his adventures in South America — with each section focusing on a different region. His first anecdote describes a trip to Thailand where all his money is stolen and he is left stranded on a remote island. Clearly Thompson isn’t the typical fluffy travel writer. He recounts story after story — holding nothing back.

Some of these sections stand out, such as Thompson’s opinion of the Caribbean. He dedicates a whole chapter to a philosophical discussion of why exactly he dislikes the region, saying it is unpleasant and overrated. Witnessing Thompson put his internal struggle into words is great. It really lets the reader see his perspective on things, and in this case it’s refreshing. Additionally, Thompson’s conclusion is believable, as the reader followed the process he used to reach it.

Another high point of the book reflects his earlier critique. Thompson spends a chapter discussing South America as one of the most underrated travel destinations in the world in a similar soul-searching manner. These sections are Thompson at his best. They manage to provide the reader with a bounty of worthy information and at the same time Thomspon’s writing remains entertaining and witty.

The book then transitions into a political diatribe that Thompson levels against the American government, travellers and materialistic culture founded on the idea that oil is a never ending resource. He makes some good points. Like the introduction, his arguments are well-reasoned and impassioned pleas for change. However, they feel out of place. It seems as if Thompson compiled two separate books ­­– one that deals with his opinions on travel writing, politics and the perception of foreigners, and the other a vehicle for his travel stories, that are often hilarious and entertaining. The dynamic between these two subjects is tenuous. Thompson often switches from anecdote to diatribe and though he tries to connect the two subjects, he often fails.

At 321 pages, Smile When You’re Lying is a little long, slow and confusing at times. Thompson tries to do too much, and it makes reading his book difficult. But when he’s good, he’s great, providing valuable insights into the world of modern travel.

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