Richard Sterling, The Fire Never Dies (Travelers' Tales, 2001)

Food and travel writers have always made their personalities an integral part of their tales. Anthony Bourdain's manic bad-boy enthusiasm, Madhur Jaffrey's nostalgic sensualism, M. F. K. Fisher's understated elegance, and Jonathan Gold's unpretentious gusto are as much a reason to read their work as the luscious meals and landscapes they describe.

I love food and I love traveling, and I love reading about food and traveling, and I enjoy hanging out with and reading books by macho adventuring manly men. So The Fire Never Dies, a memoir about the adventures of a super macho Vietnam vet as he travels the world in search of the perfectly spiced meal, should have been a book to embrace.

Richard Sterling and his machismo and his annoyingly repetitive metaphor of fire as passion, fire as spice, fire as life, are omnipresent in the pages of The Fire Never Dies:  bedding exotic hookers who take terrible risks just to spend a night with him, knocking down Indian shopkeepers and Vietnamese pick-pockets in unpleasant racist games of "Indian tag" and "trolling for pick-pockets," eating fire ants with Borneo tribesmen, banging his shins on a nuclear warhead, and killing "gooks" in an embarrassingly misfired attempt at a semi ironic look into a soldier's mind.

Both Sterling and his overheated, pretentious prose are insufferable. He comes across as a self-righteous, narcissistic jerk with delusions of grandeur, and he's so full of himself that he can barely spare a paragraph to describe what he's eating. When he does, his food descriptions are so laden with overblown imagery that they often read like parodies:

"Savory spicefire rushed through my mouth, tiny beads of sweat popped from my brow, and my pallet (sic) sang 'Alive!' I had sucked in a small piece of chili so I bit into it and it burst in an explosion of flavorheat. I swallowed and the glow went down to my gut and it screamed 'Alive, Alive, Alive!'"

Even worse, many of the chapters simply don't ring true. I don't know whether he made them up and passed them off as fact, or whether they really happened and he lacks the gift of making improbable but real events convincing, but by the half-way point I had stopped believing what I was reading.  What's more, I didn't care.

One gets the impression when reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential or A Cook's Tour, that he would make a charming dinner companion: unpretentious, funny, a lifter of glasses and a lifter of spirits.

Reading The Fire Never Dies, one gets the impression that if one were to dine with Richard Sterling, he would monopolize the conversation with braggadocio and wild tales that, however amusing at first, would quickly grow stale, then obnoxious;  that he would make a crude pass at the closest woman within reach and get his face slapped; that he would write a story in which he and a thinly disguised she spent a night of moaning passion culminating in her begging him to come back any time he's in the area; and that he would proceed to publish it as non-fiction.

I could be wrong. Sterling could be a nice modest man and a perfect gentleman, and his book could be nothing but the stone cold truth. But reading it did not fill me with a passion for life and love; it merely instilled in me the desire to set fire to Sterling's shoes.
 

[Rachel Manija Brown]