Longtime Los Angeles Times columnist and humorist Martinez (City of Angles, 1995, etc.) uses a wide range of travel experiences, mostly with family, as a format for disbursing rants, vents, intimate observations, and credit where credit’s due.
Martinez aims to be helpful. If, for instance, you’re headed to Lourdes, he suggests, “There’s not much to do unless you’re a leper.” His solution? Hit the gift shops and load up on religious kitsch. So much for travel tips. Blown reservations, surly waiters, lost luggage: all the familiar annoyances are grist for the author’s free associations, often mildly profane or scatological, that somehow wander back to elements of the same codified confession: his wife is a jewel; martinis are good but not good for you; his stepfather was an unmitigated bastard; his mother was steadfast and driven, but strangely distant. It was she, he recounts, who, when he was caught stealing as a kid, noted that he was destined to turn bad and “die in Oakland” (hence the title). Bad experiences, like a freezing sojourn in Barrow, Alaska, or being stuck in odoriferous fleabag hotels in Europe, are inevitably compared to the eternal yardstick of Korea, where the author spent more than a year as a combat Marine. On the other hand, his description of his home in Topanga Canyon, outside of LA, is so effusive it makes one want to check in as a guest. It is usually his wife, Martinez admits, who jolts him from his inertia to go out and face the world. He supplies the biases and paranoia; when, for instance, three strangers approach out of the dark while they are stranded on the road in Mexico, the author knows rape and pillage when he sees it. Instead, the men fix his car, refuse any payment, and go on their way.
Amusing irreverence gives way to a sentimental journey.