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09.24.08

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Book Reviews

Restaurant tell-all 'Waiter Rant' and Paul Theroux's 'Ghost Train to the Eastern Star'


Waiter Rant
By the Waiter (Steve Dublanica);Ecco; 320 pages; $24.95 hardback

If you've ever sat down at a fine dining establishment and ordered Kobe beef paired with baby greens, tomatillos and pickled English cucumbers accompanied by a split ciabatta roll, only to end up stuck with a $30 hamburger, then the misleading media buzz that has preceded Waiter Rant will seem familiar to you. This is not a book about the shocking or heartwarming tales of a waiter, nor is it a tell-all account of the life of a waiter, though it aspires to be both. Waiter Rant is an autobiographical story of an above-average waiter trying to become an average writer. Scattered throughout are effectively touching tales and revolting revelations, but unfortunately, they're not the focus. Instead, the "waiter," who was recently unmasked as Steve Dublanica, offers his thoughts on why waiters arrive at and stay in the profession, what motivates people to tip, illegal immigration, the hypocrisy of organized religion and substance abuse. Dublanica's insights are rarely original or interesting. It's only when he recounts the behind-the-scenes insanity of a waiter's life that he touches upon what made the blog that spawned this title famous in the first place. Too quickly, it becomes clear that the Waiter is winging it as the Writer. On no fewer than 20 occasions, Dublanica references his attempts to become a writer, and at one point even includes a conversation in which a co-worker proclaims he should write a book. Often conversations such as these are so convenient that you have to question if they're fictitious or if the Waiter just has many really dull but opportune discussions. Once you get past the fact that the Waiter is not going to serve up a substantially new amount of stories in the vein of the original blog, you can decide if you still want to pay for an experience that turns out to be just another hamburger.

Matthew Craggs

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
By Paul Theroux; Houghton Mifflin; 496 pages; $28 hardback

Ignoring his own warning that no good travel writer ever "backtracked to take the great trip again," Paul Theroux conjures up an excuse for retracing the steps of his famous trekking tale The Great Railway Bazaar (published in 1975): the author supposes that doing so might reveal "a different place, with ominous changes," and, more practically, "a new book." Beginning in London, Theroux rode the rails through Europe to Turkey, across the "stans" of the Caucasus, into India and Southeast Asia, up through China and then across Siberia--avoiding hot spots like Afghanistan and Iran. As cranky as ever (Theroux's books make wonderful traveling companions; the man himself would drive you crazy in a sleeper compartment), he recalls his previous marital difficulties and hints darkly at current strains in his relationships. He starts in a bleak mood ("the rain descending like a burden") and ends by complaining about a Japanese cybercafe. In between, Theroux finds plenty to worry about--the places he travels through have, for the most part, gotten worse, not better, during the intervening 30-plus years; of Bangalore he writes, "The place had not evolved: it had been crudely transformed--less city planning than the urban equivalent of botched cosmetic surgery." Outrun by the headlines, Theroux's description of the wacky late dictator Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan is already out of date. He does, however, catch a whiff of the troubles to come in Georgia: after the Russians cut off natural gas supplies, "Georgia was reminded of its vulnerability, its poverty, its desperation, its dependence on Russia." Theroux is prone to generalizations ("The odor of humanity, which is also an odor of death"), egotism (he notes how many editions of his books can be found in remote locations) and hobbyhorses (he's obsessed with Japan's obsession with manga porn), but he is also an intrepid observer; at one point, he finds himself picking his way "across the weeds and stones in the no man's land between two frontiers, from dismal Farap in Turkmenistan to dismal Jalkym in Uzbekistan." Finally, the book, once again, fulfills Theroux's most trenchant observation: "Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life."

Michael S. Gant


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