“Travel is glamorous only in retrospect,” wrote Paul Theroux, who’s spent much of his career explaining that going to unknown places means embracing tedium, delay, and emotional dysfunction.
D.C.-based food and travel writer Nevin Martell (also a Washington City Paper freelancer) knows the feeling: He spent much of his adolescence being dragged by his parents from one exotic island to another, which was less romantic than it seems. Martell is a child of privilege—his father was a successful New York restaurateur who cashed out early—but as he points out in his comic memoir, Freak Show Without a Tent, all that moving around left him in a perpetual state of disorientation. “Back in Clinton [N.Y.], I was Nevin from Somewhere-Not-Here,” he writes. “When we traveled to far flung locales, I was Nevin from Not-There.”
If he’s fishing for pity, Martell does a good job of hiding it; much of his book treats all this traveling as fodder for comedy. In Vanuatu, 12-year-old Martell witnesses a coming-of-age ritual in which boys leap off towers tethered to vines: “It’s basically bungee jumping minus the safety harness and the multimillion-dollar insurance policy.” In Fiji, he downs a coconut shell’s worth of intoxicating kava, leaving him with “all the grace of a dying gazelle stuck in quicksand.” An island off the coast of Venezuela is so desolate it “would be a perfect location to shoot Mad Max 4: So Fucking Far Beyond Thunderdome You Wouldn’t Believe Me If I Told You.”
The gags obscure the fact that, despite the weirdness promised by the title, Martell doesn’t get involved in too much drama himself: He doesn’t jump off a tower, doesn’t get terribly loopy off the kava, and doesn’t wind up skeletonized by piranhas. And Martell tends to lay the jokes on a bit too thick; it’s easy to imagine that a sitcom pitch based on this book is floating around somewhere. But he writes thoughtfully about the tension that thrums underneath his father’s tiring demands for adventure: Dad is a proto–Anthony Bourdain, eager to experience something authentic amid the tourist traps, while his wife, Martell, and Martell’s younger sister try to keep him tethered to reality.
At his best, Martell can make this tension feel Thurberesque and not merely wacky. Dad’s effort to land a mahi-mahi off a zigzagging fishing boat is woven around Nevin’s squabbling with his sister and his shift from mildly seasick to thoroughly barfy. A failed attempt to shoot a bird in the Azores offends his sister, scares his mother, and disappoints his father. “My cowardice was multifaceted,” he writes.
It gives away nothing to say that all of these efforts to push back against the routines of domestic stability prove to be, well, destabilizing. In the lessons-learned epilogue of the book, Martell describes a recent trip to Costa Rica with his father, who’s bummed that he can’t go on a zipline but has learned to settle for the satisfactions of a decent espresso instead. As his dad has mellowed, so has his son. It’s not as thrilling as jumping off a tower with a few vines tied around your ankles, but whatever helps you become a grownup qualifies as a worthwhile adventure.