by Glenn Sumi
STAN FOGEL'S GRINGO STAR is a travel book that goes nowhere. It provides neither the sensual pleasures of good travel writing nor the insights of meaningful and sustained critique of the genre. Rather, it's a pompous, self-congratulatory, and at times almost unreadable trek through some weedy thoughts and scenarios. In the end, it's as glib and meaningless as its title.
Throughout the book, Fogel separates himself from other travel writers -- those writers who visit a place, chat with some locals, then write with authority based on their superficial findings:
[in travel writing], too much is made to seem vital, compelling, significant. ... A travel writer becomes an instant expert, a vital recorder, hoarder, your agent in the field sifting through opulence or hardship for the picture you'd want to take, one, You hope, that is unique but also representative.
Unfortunately, Fogel doesn't provide an alternative to this kind of travel writing. Instead, he presents several situations that seem chosen for their hip novelty: he tries to join the David Bowie rock tour as "Professor Roadie"; he ogles transsexuals in France; and he complains about the difficulty of maintaining his bodybuilding regime while travelling because of the dearth of good gyms.
Besides being great fodder for dust-jacket copy, these scenarios do sound intriguing. Fogel, however, drains all life from them. No Hunter S. Thompson, he has little grasp of how to tell a story. His pieces begin, then get sidetracked by parenthetical musings, ramblings, and rantings. He fails to realize that even in the postmodern era, readers crave compelling narrative.
We also crave good prose - something we're denied in this book. Fogel boasts, practically on every page, that he's a professor of literature; and he drops names like Dinesen, Didion, Carver, and DeLillo throughout the book. Unfortunately he's not even remotely in their league. Here are two representative samples:
That the author of the piece You are reading is no island, Donne's truism, my interaction with the islands and its occupants proved in both comic and intimate ways.
I stopped by the roadside while Duddy asked a bemused stroller whether the fields around us were tobacco fields. "Some is," the man said, our limitations in the world outstripping his grammatically unmatched words.
As if trying to compensate for the size of his literary gift, Fogel plays with words in an irritating and often nonsensical way. Every few pages, we encounter a series of alliterative phrases: premise and promise; dens of denizens, vinaigrette vignette; hipsters' hips, ironies and binaries. It's almost as if Fogel sees himself as the intellectual court jester, waving his hands and poking fun at academic stuffiness. But these verbal flip-flops distract and -- to imitate the writer -- are neither profound nor profane. If, as the author curiously insists, "Jane Austen's prose ... reads like it was written by blunt fingers," then Stan Fogel's prose reads like it was written by someone missing a limb.