Anthony Bourdain attracted people to him, beyond the usual parasocial relationships that develop between the famous and those who love them from afar. Folks felt like they knew him. They felt connected to him. That was one of Bourdain’s gifts as a writer, raconteur and television travel guide: He was open to experiencing the world, the best and the worst of it, and he in return presented himself as an open book to the world.

He was a guy who hated artificiality, yet he practiced his craft on, arguably, the most manipulative medium in history. That dissonance, I’m convinced, was part of what made many of us love Bourdain even more: He presented himself as an intellectual truth-teller on an idiot box that Neil Postman, the writer and theorist, once said was “largely aimed at emotional gratification.” Bourdain was the guy who could juggle romanticism, nostalgia and unvarnished truth, whether it was about Atlantic City, Iran or his own troubled life.

“Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography,” by Laurie Woolever. Ecco. 464 pgs. $29.99. David Scott Holloway/Ecco

David Simon understood Bourdain’s tractor beam. Simon is a writer and television producer, best known for “The Wire,” and if you follow his Twitter feed, you know he’s not prone to sentimentality. Which is part of the reason I’m so struck by his interview with Laurie Woolever in her absorbing new book, “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography.” Simon recalls watching an episode in which Bourdain visited a South American city that the producer couldn’t remember. Bourdain sat with his back against an alley wall, watching kids playing kickball while locals drank a red-wine-and-cola concoction known as siete y tres.

There’s “this look of incredible sadness and love” on Bourdain’s face, Simon tells Woolever. “It was a moment of duende for me. It’s like, This guy loves people. He’s trying desperately to connect in ways that great journalists and great writers connect. And also, the writing is so good, the narration so well-written, that I just wanted to be his friend.”

Simon had the connections and influence to eventually make friends with Bourdain. (He would even ask Bourdain to write scenes for the HBO series “Treme,” about post-Katrina New Orleans and its subplot about a chef trying to find her way.) But here’s the thing: Whether you were a friend in real life, like Simon, or just a vicarious one, like most of us, you’ve probably tried in the three-plus years since Bourdain’s death by suicide to reconcile the man who seemingly had nothing to hide with the man whose private demons led to that awful night in a luxury hotel in Alsace, France.

Oscar winner Morgan Neville’s documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” provided more than a few insights into the man, but the film’s power was curbed in two ways, one avoidable and one not: It was limited to a couple of hours of running time, normal for the medium, and it was sidetracked by a controversy in which Neville used artificial intelligence to have Bourdain read a few of his own passages posthumously. The public spent more time arguing about the ethics of A.I. than it did debating the merits of Neville’s work.

Author Laurie Woolever was Bourdain’s assistant. David Scott Holloway/Ecco

Woolever’s book does a much better job of filling the void, and she’s the ideal person to tell Bourdain’s story. For years, she was his assistant, confidant, traffic cop and occasional collaborator. (This year, Ecco released Bourdain’s posthumous travel guide, which Woolever single-handedly compiled from the author’s previous works.) In other words, Bourdain’s contacts list was her contacts list.

For the oral biography, Woolever interviewed nearly 100 people who wandered in and out of Bourdain’s life during his 61 years. They include family members, former colleagues in the kitchen, journalists, artists, chefs, network executives and the many people who toiled behind the scenes to produce Bourdain’s singular travel shows.

Collectively, their stories and remembrances are heartbreaking, infuriating, inspiring, damning, loving and sometimes even disorienting. We learn over the course of more than 400 pages that the portrait Bourdain painted of himself – tough, empathetic, quick-witted, curious, damaged, competitive, no-nonsense – was just a sketch. So many shadings had yet to be filled in. The transparency that Bourdain implicitly promised us through his writings and shows, we come to find out, was far more opaque.

Take, for example, this passage from Bourdain’s essay “Selling Out,” in his 2010 book “Medium Raw”: “In my life, in my world, I took it as an article of faith that chefs were unlovable. That’s why we were chefs. We were basically … bad people – which is why we lived the way we did, this half-life of work followed by hanging out with others who lived the same life, followed by whatever slivers of emulated normal life we had left to us. Nobody loved us. Not really.”

I’ve been pondering this passage the past two days, mostly as a counterpoint to the material contained in Woolever’s book. What’s missing from Bourdain’s confession in “Medium Raw” is the source of his self-loathing. The source, it seems, is the usual one: Bourdain’s childhood. He had a strained relationship with his parents, especially his mother, Gladys, a controlling presence in the young Bourdain’s life. As his brother, Christopher Bourdain, reveals in the book, Gladys reinvented herself as an adult. She concealed her Jewish background from her WASPy neighbors, lied about her maiden name and even made her friends and husband swear to keep her secrets safe. Her children wouldn’t learn some truths until later in life.

“Our mom was always more argumentative and frustrated with her lot in life,” Christopher Bourdain tells Woolever. “When people weren’t doing what she thought was right, she would initiate arguments. Tony was into a lot of stuff that she disliked.”

“I mean,” Bourdain says a few pages later in the book, “they would periodically go for anywhere from three months to a year without talking.”

That childhood, it seems, set the course of Anthony Bourdain’s life until his last breath. His rebellion. His seclusion into books and film (much like his father, Pierre). His descent into hard drugs. His controlling behavior (colleagues talk about the casual way he’d brush off their ideas or even their painstaking preproduction work during location shoots). His endless thrill-seeking. Maybe even his ability to conceal secrets – pains, doubts and private yearnings – that he didn’t want others to know about.

The beauty of this book is its ability to balance joy and pain. You sense both the damage done to Bourdain and the damage he would later inflict upon others. At the same time, you also read one memory after another from people, whether they were the beneficiaries or victims of Bourdain’s generosity and/or pettiness, who were able to do the one thing that he apparently couldn’t: They loved him and felt empathy for him through all the peaks and valleys.

“Tony had a way of talking about himself honestly without revealing himself, really,” Nigella Lawson, the television host and longtime friend, tells Woolever. “I mean, everything you read about him, he’s not telling lies. He’s hiding in plain sight.”

“I feel that also, he always had to perform the role of Tony,” Lawson continues. “So that performance was a form of protection, as well as a kind of punishment. I don’t know that he could be in a room with someone and allow himself to be dull. Tony was never dull. But there’s no such thing in the world as someone who sometimes doesn’t feel muzzle-brained or too low to have a conversation.”

The oral biography races through the chapters of Bourdain’s life, maybe even the ones you had forgotten about. (Remember the ill-fated Bourdain Market, his expansive food hall inspired by Singapore street hawkers?) Several of the closing chapters are devoted to another ill-fated experiment: Bourdain’s relationship with Asia Argento, the Italian actress, #MeToo activist and filmmaker who is depicted as yet one more drug that Bourdain couldn’t resist. Argento, incidentally, is not interviewed for the book, just as she wasn’t for Neville’s documentary.

When an Italian tabloid published photos linking Argento to a French journalist, Bourdain sunk into a deep funk from which he never recovered.

“He never liked looking like a rube,” Lydia Tenaglia, co-founder of Zero Point Zero Production, tells Woolever. “I think he was profoundly hurt, and profoundly disappointed, and profoundly humiliated, and he probably had a moment of epiphany; that he had just … leveraged his whole life, his reputation, his words, his family, his money. I think it was just kind of like, I’m done, I’m exhausted.”

After reading Woolever’s superb book, you can argue that his suicide was a cruel, avoidable coda to this brilliant man’s messy life. Or that, after escaping so many close calls, Bourdain just fell prey to his addictions. Or both.


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