Did I know I liked travel memoirs? I think so, but Tanner Ballengee’s Tourorist confirmed that for me. And by travel memoirs I’m not talking any of that Eat, Pray, Love bullshit. I’m talking about someone admitting they’re in over their heads in a foreign culture. Or they’re forced to rethink their privilege around those with fewer material goods than them. I’m talking about travel writing where people are confronted with their alcoholism and mental health issues somewhere they don’t speak the language. And yet all of it is interwoven with humility, compassion, and sensitivity.
You’ll find all of that and much more in Ballengee’s book. The story is a narrative of a road trip the author had in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the early 2010s. From saving up money he made selling pizzas in his early twenties, Ballengee and his friend, Conner, spent months driving around these countries on a motorcycle and scooter they purchased in Vietnam.
I’m sure there are travel diaries written by people making the same journeys on motorcycles in Southeast Asia. But what drew me in to Tourorist is that Ballengee is a punk, showcasing how someone who reads Razorcake is more likely to travel around these countries as opposed to an individual staying in hotels. Illegal camping, couch surfing, and staying with complete strangers is how Ballengee got by while trying to find inspiration in low points using Bad Brains’ PMA.
The other difference between Tourorist and the typical travel memoir is that Ballengee didn’t discover some meaningful realization. In fact, the subtitle of the book is “How I Failed to Find Myself in Southeast Asia.” These are just stories of the author’s experiences. There are few dramatic realizations, but there is a good level of self-reflection. This finds Ballengee reviewing his infidelity, his troublesome relationship with his parents, and in spite of that, how good he has it. Too often with travel memoirs, especially those written by Westerners, there’s a sense of privilege that is never reflected upon. Ballengee more than acknowledges this and shares his faults clearly without being overbearing.
None of this is to say that there isn’t levity in the writing. There were multiple times I laughed out loud at the ill fortunes of the author and Conner. Near misses on their motor bikes, funny conversations with locals, and a copious amount of beer led to some humorous moments. All combined, the writing is a nice mix that leaves the reader challenged but also entertained. And while it made me fascinated with the area of the world Ballengee visited, it also left me satisfied in knowing I could never pull off the adventure he had (nor would I want to). But I’m glad someone did so they could share it with a wider audience. –Kurt Morris (tridentcafe.com/trident-press-titles)