Wednesday, December 21, 2022

No Touch Monkey! by Ayun Halliday

I'd forgotten that I'd ever read anything by Ayun Halliday before. No Touch Monkey! was on my shelf because I bought it back in 2013 soon after reading Halliday's YA graphic novel Peanut (drawn by Paul Hoppe) but that long on the shelf made me forget Peanut entirely while reading it.

And, frankly, I don't think the two projects have a lot in common. My sense, from some quick desultory Googling, is that Halliday's career has been mostly closer to No Touch Monkey! than Peanut: she's written a number of prose books, all more-or-less nonfictional and about aspects of her own life, and that one graphic novel for someone else to draw. (She's also a - I think former - long-time member of an experimental theatre troupe and the writer/artist/publisher of an even longer-running zine [1] called The East Village Inky, which seems to be roughly equally about the exploits of her now-early-twenties kids and various interesting stuff in boho NYC.)

Anyway, No Touch Monkey! was Halliday's second book, from 2003. It was ten years old when I bought it ten years ago, and it tells stories going back fifteen or more years before that, so I had to recalibrate a bit when I picked up a book that I thought had just been on my shelf for a short time and suddenly I was back in the dark days of the late '80s. It tells travel stories in fourteen basically-chronological chapters, covering the author's backpacking years.

I've tended mostly to read travel books by travel writers, but Halliday has, as far as I can tell, never been paid to go somewhere - she just went places she wanted to, and then (many years later) assembled the best moments from a whole lot of trips on the cheap into this book. Halliday went from just post-college (and poor) to mid-twenties (and still poor) to early-thirties new motherhood (but still traveling on the cheap) - this is all very much the backpacker ethos, all Lonely Planet and early Rick Steeves, focused on spending as much time in interesting places as authentically as possible, on very little money by doing things like taking trains overnight on a rail pass to avoid paying for a hostel.

I've never traveled like that - I was too poor to get out of the country, and had too many commitments to spend months on the road, when I was young and spry enough that it was physically plausible. And I've never been all that enthralled with nostalgie de la boue to begin with. But other people's stories of dysentery and monkey attacks and dislocated knees are always much more fun than living through them yourselves, and Halliday is a pleasant, zippy writer with a bunch of stories to tell.

So this is a bit outdated - the trips range from roughly 1987 to 2001 - and very much a specific kind of travel, and not at all a guide of how you might travel like this. But the stories are fun, and never underestimate the pleasure involved in having someone else have a trying time in a funny way.

[1] Remember zines? Even typing the word makes me feel old, but Halliday is apparently still trucking along quarterly on paper as if it were still the first summer of Lilith Fair.

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