When I see a book written by someone associated with a graduate writing program, I generally avoid it. There’s something about that culture that encourages carefully crafted, elegant prose that never manages to say anything. Gary Buslik, who teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Chicago, manages to avoid this all-to-common pitfall. Sort of.
A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean, published by Travelers’ Tales, is a refreshing antidote to the overly precious writing of most English professors and MFA students. Even Buslik advises in an interview with Vagablogging that any aspiring young writer should get as far away from college as possible.
Buslik’s book is a collection of short tales of his adventures through the Caribbean, usually accompanied by his long-suffering yet completely unforgiving wife. Our hapless hero accidentally pees on ousted dictators, pukes during a guided tour, and gets into arguments with beggars. While the writing is funny enough that it made me actually laugh out loud in places (a hard thing to do) Buslik’s self-portrayal as an uneducated, oafish tourist rang a little hollow considering he has a Ph.D. in English and teaches at a major university. He is much more convincing when he gets serious, like when he tracks down an old friend of his literary hero Hemingway, or when he is shocked by the brutality of a cockfight. Then we’re with him, seeing his trepidation at meeting Hemingway’s aged friend, feeling his stomach turn as the cocks rip away at each other behind some West Indian shack. These pieces really grip the reader and hint that this is the real Buslik. They are well worth the cover price; the funny bits are just an added bonus.
I wished there had been more of the serious pieces and less of the silly (yet genuinely funny) romps through Touristland. I came away with the impression that Buslik has compensated too far in the other direction and sometimes forgets what so many of his colleagues also forget–that the best writing comes when the writer is being genuine.