Anthony Bourdain killed himself yesterday. That’s as bluntly as I can state it. Just like doctors are supposed to be direct when informing someone that their loved one has just passed away, I think it’s best to just say it plainly. Acknowledge it, and then cope with the realities of it in whatever way works for you. Anthony Bourdain is gone and it is a very great loss.
Like many people, I was first exposed to Tony from watching A Cook’s Tour on television and then I went on to buy his book Kitchen Confidential (from an actual bookstore!). I loved that book, not just for the subject matter which was right up my alley, but also because of his writing style. Prior to that, my favorite food-related reads came from a monthly column by Alan Richman in GQ (an actual print publication!). What Bourdain and Richman had in common was a hilarious way of phrasing things, especially when it came to doling out sharp criticism. But Bourdain was so much more irreverent and that added an extra layer of cool. As his television career progressed, it was really his eloquence that made every episode so impactful. Whether it was clever quips during narrative voiceovers or thoughtful reflections at the end of each episode, he really had a knack for finding the perfect words for every scene. They were words that could range from the poetic to the absurd, whatever it took to punctuate a moment as either funny, poignant or profound. Over the years, there were countless times I would rewind a scene just to hear him repeat a particular line and think to myself, “wow, that was just beautiful”. And that’s what made him remarkable- he was perhaps even better at expressing positive things than he was at ripping into people like Sandra Lee or Guy Fieri (and he was very good at that). If the current state of American society is any indication, it’s so much easier to tear things down and insult people. Any insolent hack can do that. But to be able to connect, unite and inspire is a far greater challenge. Bourdain was a master at both.
This morning I pulled up an old blog entry of mine from 2006 when I was clearly already a total Bourdain fanboy. My appreciation of him even back then made me realize some things about my own writing. It’s natural to try and imitate those that you admire, and I think I’ve always wanted to find a writing voice that sounds like Bourdain’s. I am of course miles away from that. Whenever I re-read things I’ve written, the voice I hear coming off the page is often rigid and sterile, void of the color that animates Tony’s writing. Other times the voice sounds whiney, as if pleading for the reader to agree with my point whereas Tony’s style naturally carries a confidence that says “I don’t give a fuck”. But it made me wonder if perhaps every writer doesn’t carry that same self-doubt…and in light of what happened yesterday, it made me wonder what kind of voice Tony heard when he read his own words.
When I first read that Tony had committed suicide, I thought it had to be a hoax. Even after the major news outlets confirmed the story, I still didn’t quite believe it. Maybe there was foul play involved? Maybe a maniacal Trump supporter ambushed him in his hotel? Did Harvey Weinstein send a goon to take him out and frame it as a suicide? Somehow those scenarios seemed more plausible to me than him taking his own life. How could a man who loved his daughter so much do this? A man who had the best job in the world, traveling and eating. A man who was dating the beautiful Asia Argento and by all accounts seemed to be quite happily in love. Plus Tony trained Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, sometimes 7 days a week, so we know he had a fighting spirit. What could possibly make someone with all those things going for him decide to commit suicide? I suppose it could have been something chemical, but it seemed like his days of drug use were well behind him. It just doesn’t make sense.
But ultimately, I’ve decided I won’t do him the disservice of trying to come up with an explanation. It would be wrong, and I mean that in several ways. Wrong in t
hat whatever I come up with isn’t likely to be correct. Wrong in that it would be too simplistic. And ultimately, wrong in that its only real purpose is to provide
closure for myself. Taking something as serious and tragic as suicide and trying to wrap it up in a tidy little explanation just for my own peace of mind would just be narcissistic, so I won’t do that. Let’s all not do that.
Putting aside the unknowable, all that remains is what Anthony Bourdain’s life and death meant to each one of us. The number of heartwarming tributes to him across all forms of media today are overwhelming evidence of just how many lives he touched across so many walks of life. He leaves us with a well-documented legacy in his books, shows, articles, interviews and social media. The common thread running through it all is a humanistic one. Wherever he went he always sought to make real connections with real people. And despite, or maybe because of, his snarky and cynical tendencies, whenever he made those connections, you could sense he was humbled by each and every one and his appreciation ran deep. I hope he knows how much the world appreciated him in return. May he rest in peace.