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Review of Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story

Published in the Fall 2013 edition of Bostonia magazine

J. MAARTEN TROOST (CAS’91)
NONFICTION (GOTHAM BOOKS)

Best-selling author Troost was fresh out of rehab and still battling an uncontrollable urge to drink when he realized something: bad things happened to him on large land masses. So he packed his bags and headed to the South Seas to re-create the trip taken by Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. Unlike Stevenson, he couldn’t charter his own ship, so he flew to Tahiti, where he hopped on a ship bound for the Marquesas. “I never tired of the sensation of seeing land recede from my vision,” he writes. “Something elemental takes over, a kind of universal awareness of the beauty and fragility of life. It induced no fear in me.”

As a travel writer, Troost had lived for short periods in Fiji, Kiribati, and Vanuatu and was no stranger to the inner workings of the world’s smallest atolls. InHeadhunters, his fourth book, he explores the Marquesas on board a small cruise vessel. That is, of course, until he jumps ship in Nuku Hiva. Regaling the reader with humorous tales of art, food, adventure, and battles with nonos, “the planet’s most irritating insects,” he laces his narrative with literary and pop culture references from Herman Melville and Nike shoes to the Kardashians and Huckleberry Finn.

Troost still struggles with the lure of the bottle, but finds release in running for miles across whatever island he happens to find himself on. And in watching others drink and talking to a drunken hobo on the beaches of Tautira, he realizes that he really hates alcoholics.

In his usual tell-it-like-it-is manner, he offers insight into the emotional state of a recovering alcoholic as well as the liberating act of falling off the map. He interjects his own tales with those of Stevenson’s life and adventures in the Marquesas and beyond. After leaving the Marquesas, he follows the author’s trail and sets off for the Tuamotus, Tahiti, the Gilberts, and Samoa, making a final pilgrimage to Stevenson’s grave on the summit of Mount Vaea. He gives his own take on each island and paints an engaging portrait of the people who inhabit these remote atolls with nicknames such as “the Man-Eating Isle,” “the Island of Merrymaking,” and “the Bay of Penises.”

With typical wry wit and humor, he goes off on small tangents about the missionaries who once settled on the Marquesas, the history of naval travel, the motivations behind his running habit, and his desire to be a “serious snorkeler.” He offers a history of cannibalism and a look at cross-dressing and transgendered Polynesian men.

Somewhere among getting his first tattoo, being attacked by wild island dogs, and swimming with hundreds of sharks, Troost manages to convey the distinct beauty of each island he visits. The picture he paints of South Seas atolls like Fakarava and Fatu Hiva is enough to stir wanderlust in the most steadfast homebody.

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BONUS

Restaurant Review: A Taste of Vietnam

Super 88, located at 1095 Commonwealth Ave., is accessibly from the Green Line by taking the B trolley to Packard’s Corner. The Market is open Monday through Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and food court hours vary from stall to stall. Phò Viet’s is open 365 days a year, Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. They accept all major credit cards, as do most of the other stalls in Super 88; an ATM is also located inside the food court.  

At the intersection of Brighton Ave. and Commonwealth Ave., an old warehouse is bustling. The neon sign flashes “Super 88” followed by many Asian characters I can only assume say the same thing. I venture into the warehouse – it’s lunchtime and I’m hungry.

Super 88 is a large food court that caters to Asian palettes with stalls serving Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Korean and Vietnamese cuisines. Today, I’m in the mood for Vietnamese, so I wonder on over to Phò Viet’s and immediately begin salivating. Phò Viet’s has dozens of entrée options and posts large laminated pictures of each one, enticing hungry customers like myself.

Vietnamese food is hailed as one of the healthiest ethnic cuisines in the world. It utilizes fresh vegetables and herbs and generally does not use any oil when cooking. Lemongrass, mint and basil are used in many of the most popular Vietnamese dishes such as bún thịt nuóng cha giò, hàp sáand luôc.

After laboring long and hard, I finally decide to order number 28 – còm thit heo nuóng, grilled lemongrass slice pork with jasmine steamed rice. Vietnamese chefs cook their meats very briefly in order to preserve their original color and texture and the vegetables are rarely cooked, but eaten fresh. My grilled lemongrass slice pork is no exception, but is browned all around and not at all overdone. The wedge of cucumber and slices of carrot taste as if they had been picked this morning.

The most noticeable aspect of Phò Viet’s is their use of the traditional Vietnamese herbs and spices. The lemongrass adds a sweet juicy flavor to the pork while hints of jasmine give a fun little twist to what is normally plain tasting steamed rice.

The freshness of their meals and the manner in which the food is presented are a point of pride at Phò Viet’s. Even in takeout containers, brightly colored vegetables are arranged around sticky white rice, topped with your meat of choice and maybe some scallions scattered about. This beautiful meal is the most appetizing thing I have ever seen inside a takeout box.

I choose to dine inside the food court, however, where the presentation is even more spectacular with giant bowls for the noodle soup and decorated plates serving nem, Vietnamese spring rolls. I break apart my chopsticks and dive right in to an absolutely delightful lunch.

For a little taste of Vietnam in Boston, Phò Viet’s is one of the best places to go. The food is utterly delicious and the atmosphere of the food court with dozens of languages being spoken and the smell of thyme, jasmine and rosemary in the air all make for a great dining experience.

If you feel so inclined to make these dishes yourself, head to the back of the food court where Super 88 has an Asian grocery store, stocked with all the ingredients you need.

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