I just got back from a family vacation to Ohio. Great trip. I spent most of the time I was there on a farm occasionally helping out my wife's Uncle Hugh with farming chores. Let me tell you, I am doing nothing with my life anywhere near what Uncle Hugh has done with his. He works from dawn till dusk to put soy, corn, and wheat onto American tables nation wide, I regale you guys with my literary prose and reviews whether you like it (or read it) or not! The man's in his mid sixties and is in better shape than I am. In that I am a morbidly obese man that's not too hard, but helping on the farm showed me how he stays in shape, and being that I am a falstafian man of morbidly obese proportions I could barely keep up! Aside from that, and hitting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame(!) I turned in early many a night (prompted by unspoken soreness) to get some reading done! Consequently I finished both The Professor and the Madman, and this book, Anthony Bourdain's Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical. Eureka! This Morbidly Obese critic has just found the next and most secure weight loss craze... just read this book and you won't ever want to eat in any restaurant again... or possibly even at home! I think I've dropped the five vacation pounds I gained already! Word!
First off this is a nonfiction work, and not a "novel" out to entertain you. Bourdain does stick to the facts as he sees them, but unlike Simon Winchester (author of The Professor and the Madman) this author writes in a purely vernacular voice and isn't higher above the average reader (nor is Bourdain afraid to be sensational). In essence, if you're curious about Typhoid Mary or if you're looking for a good, interesting read, this is certainly a great springboard. While it might not cater to the intellectual in you like The Professor and the Madman might, this is a well-written and intelligent history from an author who really can write, but still speaks to his audience like an old buddy telling a true story from his own perspective. What perspective? Like the legendary and unfortunately nicknamed "Typhoid" Mary Mallon, Bourdain is a professional chef who has experienced all of the hell it takes to cook for the always open mouths of a morbidly obese public, and how after a time, a chef might just not give a happy jack about the four hundredth hand washing of the day. As the most open of the aforementioned obese mouths, I certainly do give a happy jack about it, and his words concern me, as this is a prime reason for the spread of many diseases, including, but not limited to Typhoid Fever!
But (as Snoop Doggy Dogg says) "back to the lecture at hand!" Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical is the true story of Mary Mallon, her life, and those she touched, inside and out (please laugh at that line)! Over the years Typhoid Mary has been the subject of much debate. Was she an innocent victim of a misogynistic and racist society searching for an antagonist to blame, or was she a nightmare of an intentional disease-spreading madwoman? Bourdain offers up a fair account, balanced between scapegoat and villain, bio-terorrist and wrongly accused. It's clear that he sympathizes with this woman, but he also avoids glorifying her as if Typhoid Mary is really Virgin Mary (brother, she ain't)!
Not much is known about Mary Mallon's life before she started making the news. It is known that she was an Irish Immigrant, and a (presumably good) cook who worked for some of the more upscale families. There are many reports and medical and criminal logs about her after her notoriety began, but for Mallon's early life Bourdain does his best to get in touch with the thought of Mary's age, as well as the trends in Ireland and the US of the day to explain much about her, and who (and in fact, what) she really was! the progress of women to that point (the early 1900s) and the Irish Potato Famine not to mention the breakouts of Cholera, Typhus, and yes, Typhoid Fever all shaped the world Mary found herself in, and (as he should) Bourdain makes sure that he does properly set Mary up as a product of her times and environment (in the lack of a true pre-notoriety life story)! A well researched history lesson is pretty much the necessity here, and it is truly well researched.
Bourdain also dispels certain misconceptions early on in the book to alleviate the tension of preconceived notions. I'm sure he wouldn't mind me revealing that Mary can only really be linked to less than forty infections, and of those less than five deaths! While he doesn't forgive her continuing in a career that put her in an infectious position, he does make some excuses for her and puts the toll in perspective.
Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical is a great book and very informative, but it's not perfect. In his thirst to capture the zeitgeist, Bourdain digresses into "picture this" speculation so often its hard to know just when he's guessing and when he's detailing the facts. There are pages upon pages of sensationalistic passages boiling down to "this must be what Mary thought!" without the hard facts to back this up. There is also a swerving into kitchen "Faith" and the brotherhood and sisterhood of the Chefs. So often Bourdain attempts to prove his points with a bit of an "I'm a chef and so I know" attitude that does indeed add depth and understanding, but also takes away from the documentary format and almost borders on an editorial. He even describes the island upon which Mallon was held and hospitalized in great detail down to the minutia, but also claims that he had never been there! This feels a lot like fiction, doesn't it?
Bourdain never lets one forget that Mallon had a hard life with almost no mercy (for which he seems to almost want to correct the equation with kindness). As a result of this, those who weren't in her camp (such as the police, and the doctors) are practically demonized by Bourdain, often unfairly. For example, after Mary's release Sgt. Bevins of the police force that helped apprehend her initially recognizes Mary for her walk and arrests her. Bourdain mocks this vigorously, as how could Bevins have recognized her from her walk? Well, as preposterous as it may seem it was her! How can one mock the police skills of one who was indeed successful! Similarly Dr. Soper, the Waste Management professional always on the Mallon case is constantly criticized. An example of this is Soper's recognition of Mary's handwriting being ridiculed. Bourdain sarcastically remarks that Soper could add "Forensic Handwriting Expert" to his resume to entrap a woman who might have been Mary. The problem is... it was Mary! How can he be critical about Soper when Soper was correct? Sure Soper is no saint, but to criticize his successes makes for a bottom of the barrel approach to a critique! Along the way Typhoid Mary becomes an almost urban legend seen everywhere by everyone. This could easily be reprobated and picked apart without lambasting one when correct! Often Bourdain does avoid silliness and sensationalistic B.S., however he does allow personal dislikes to shape what in many cases is purely factual.
Tallying in at 148 pages, Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical is a short, and good read to spend an evening or two with and fully worth three and one half Stars! There are some moments where Bourdain shows he really can write very, very well in a descriptive vein akin to William Alexander Percy, but like Percy, Bourdain does tend to miss his own point (but only on occasion)! You might like it if you want a good and interesting introduction to the true story of Typhoid Mary, or if you are familiar with Typhoid Mary and have a desire for the story as told from a new and unique perspective. Now, if you'll excuse me... I have to go ride my bike to try to work off some of this morbid obesity... but first, I'm going to go wash my hands... (Read the book and you'll see what I mean)! Sheesh!