Book Review

As a member of a generation that has gotten most of its exposure to exotic locales from cable television, I’ve always assumed that much of the non-Western world is a poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, war-torn tableau of human suffering punctuated by the occasional crystalline moment of natural beauty such as a mountain range or flock of flamingos.

According to Robert Young Pelton, this turns out to have been a pretty good guess.

In travel journalism, Pelton’s name is not as recognized a brand as Arthur Frommer’s or Zagat Survey, but he has been working diligently during the past 10 years to carve a niche in the “let’s not and say we did” subgenre of road-trip journalism, sitting on the far end of the vector somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson and Dante. Pelton has recently released the fourth edition of his primary project, The World’s Most Dangerous Places, as well as an autobiography, The Adventurist: My Life in Dangerous Places.

Pelton’s gimmick is simple: He writes anti-travel guides, taking readers to well-known terror zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Colombia (kidnapping capital of the world – who knew?) as well as up-and-coming banana republics such as Bougainville and Burundi. The punch line is that except for a few journalists and oil executives who might find the anti-terrorism tips enlightening, Pelton’s narratives are as close as most of us will ever want to get to “the kaleidoscope of misery and misfortune that awaits” abroad.

The World’s Most Dangerous Places is an impressively wide-ranging work of field research, a joint effort between Pelton and seven contributing editors. The first part is a general overview of potential perils (e.g., “Bribes,” “Guns,” “Land Mines”) that includes tips on how to survive terrorist places, war zones, and that fixture of developing-nation public transit, the minibus. Whether these tips will directly help you avoid being robbed, injured, or killed is unverifiable. If you need to fetch out your copy in the midst of an anaconda attack, it’s probably too late anyhow.

The second part is a summary of each of Pelton’s 38 most dangerous nations, providing historical and political background, practical information such as maps and transit instructions, and first-person vignettes that give a flavor of the experience “in-country.” Pelton ranks each region with a wry five-star system where one star equals “Bad-Rep Lands” and five stars symbolize Apocalypse Now. Though the United States does make the list, it turns in an anemic one-star performance. But hope springs eternal in five-star Somalia, where the National Agency for Tourism is open for business in Mogadishu.

The timeliness of the high-tech references (“figures show terrorist incidents dropping like an out-of-favor Internet IPO stock“) are matched by a well-researched assortment of URLs to local websites such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iraq (www.kdp.pp.se) and El-Khabar, Algeria’s leading daily newspaper (www.elkhabar.com). Once again, the Internet provides more reasons never to leave the house.

The book is best as a view into the current status of “civilized” life on planet Earth, the major revelation being that war, death, crime, and poverty are inescapable realities in many regions. The New York Police Department looks like Desmond Tutu compared with governments in Algeria and Sierra Leone (home of the infamous “Operation No Living Thing”) that routinely kill, rob, and maim their own citizens.

Don’t call me Indy

Pelton’s first-person perspective is the most colorful and charismatic ingredient here, but the writing doesn’t get far beyond the hard-edged practicality of the field correspondent. Pelton maintains the detached professional empathy of a combat surgeon, rarely bridging the emotional distance he keeps between himself and his subjects. Pelton condemns the voyeurism of the “tourist” and is reluctant to accept monikers such as “Dangerman” and “the Real Indiana Jones,” but the relentless seat-of-the-pants format flattens moments of potential depth and humanity to quick-cut scenes of a narrow escape.

But maybe that’s expecting too much. Though Pelton doesn’t put all the pieces together into a neat whole, there is a persistent theme that these places and people are not only unknown but profoundly unknowable. He recounts a conversation with an elderly Algerian man: “I ask him if the West should help. He┬ásays this is an Algerian problem and Algerians must fix it. A phrase I will hear again and again.”

The Adventurist is positioned as Pelton’s autobiography but it reads more like Dangerous Places: The Early Years. The hardcover, glossy production values, and low page count all suggest a book that was rushed to market to capitalize on Pelton’s growing visibility as a travel pundit (a Discovery Channel series is in development).

Pelton seems as uncomfortable here as Tarzan in a tuxedo. Rather than define a distinct biographical voice, he cuts his life into vignettes of the same length and style found in his travel writing. Anecdotes from his childhood (focusing around tests of endurance at his Christian boys’ school in Canada) are interleaved with scenes from his recent travels, most of which are just outtakes from Dangerous Places. Pelton makes no attempt to make these cuts less arbitrary and abrupt than they are, except to lead in with portentous-sounding section headings (“Paradise Lost,” “He Who Never Knew,” “The Quests”).

Pelton doesn’t reveal much about what makes him tick, and his family and friends become filler between the action scenes. If you’re curious about what motivates Pelton to keep crossing the globe, you won’t find much except that…he just needs to.

To be fair, these two books target different audiences. Dangerous Places is a work of depth and breadth, whereas The Adventurist is exactly the right size, weight, and thickness to be sold at airport bookstores as single-flight reading. In an attempt to make it less threatening, Doubleday has even purged the countercultural laughing skull that serves as the Dangerous Places mascot.
If you really can’t handle Pelton at full strength, you’ll probably be better off catching him on cable.