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August 29, 2010

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Travel memoir goes a bit stale

WRITING comedy about foreign travel has become more challenging in the days since Mark Twain mocked the Moors of Tangier, and even since P.J. O'Rourke wrote in his 1986 essay "Among the Euro-Weenies" that the French are "a smallish, monkey-looking bunch and not dressed any better, on average, than the citizens of Baltimore." Jokes at the expense of many nations are dicey, and Europe has a small safety zone that includes the Austrians and the French. Credit goes to David Sedaris for wringing the last possible shred of humor out of the American-in-Paris tale 10 years ago, in "Me Talk Pretty One Day." At that point, travel writers probably should have banded together in one of those self-regulating industry associations aimed at defusing public hostility and declared a moratorium on wisecracks about Old Europe.

Consider, for instance, Rachel Shukert, who sails heedlessly into this tricky territory in her memoir "Everything Is Going to Be Great." Shukert is a playwright and performer and the author of a previous book, "Have You No Shame?" which chronicled her misadventures as a Jewish girl growing up in Nebraska. In her latest book, she has taken to the road and returned with mixed results.

After emerging from college in New York with a degree in theater and "no discernible prospects," Shukert does what any underemployed thespian might: She goes to Europe to take an unpaid role in an experimental play. Soon, in a handful of capitals, she's throwing up, blacking out and having one-night stands, sometimes in the course of a single evening. (Her exasperated mother back in Omaha gets the best lines: "We've already sent you to Europe. ... If you didn't find yourself, then you probably aren't there.")

Making fun of oneself is always safer than making fun of others, which is why so many travel writers do it. In this mode Shukert takes gleeful flight, abasing herself with a zeal reminiscent of another comedian-memoirist, Chelsea Handler, boldly tackling not only menstrual stains and foreskins, but also sex-trafficking and the Holocaust.

But as she shifts away from brazen self-effacement to describe the people whose countries she's stumbling through, the jokes get stale. Half the Frenchmen she sees are "crinkly little Ewok people," and Parisians are "dirty, tired and cranky." Reaching both zenith and nadir, she writes, "Say what you will about the horrors of the concentration camps, they might at least present some interesting networking opportunities."

Shukert's stops in Paris, Zurich and Vienna are prelude to Amsterdam, where she spends the most time, and where the narrative picks up steam. She moves into her friends' living room and gets an ignominious job as a promoter at an American-style comedy club.

In a sincere moment, she nails the despair that assails so many modern-day innocents (or not-so-innocents) abroad. "I couldn't leave for the same reason people couldn't leave a marriage that had died long ago: because all this couldn't have been for nothing."

She comes off something like the rambling lush at the bar who keeps insisting you stay for just one more ? and who, spinning stories out of her "histrionic and insufferably tiresome" life, makes you laugh.


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