Top of page C6, Today's New York Times: Here's the full review.
For Those Who Like Danger, the Home Book of Things Not to Try at Home
by Dwight Garner
ABSINTHE & FLAMETHROWERS
Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously
By William Gurstelle
It’s only a few weeks before the Fourth of July, the time of year that the thinking person — or at least the type of thinking person who likes to hear things go whoosh and ka-blam — begins to consider how best to spend the holiday.
Some guys, and I know who a few of you are, will be loading up the car in states where, unlike New York, the sale of fireworks is legal. (Those Phantom Fireworks discount cards can really burn a hole in your wallet.) Others like to prepare emotionally and mentally for the Fourth by getting some reading done.
Two books that put me in the mood for rockets’ red glare are George Plimpton’s classic “Fireworks: A History and Celebration” (1984), and, less conventionally, Jim Paul’s shaggily artful book “Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon” (1991).
But when it comes to the theory and practice of making your own noisy, mildly dangerous fun in the backyard, America has a new poet laureate. His name is William Gurstelle, and he staked his claim to do-it-yourself greatness in 2001 with his friendly paperback book “Backyard Ballistics.” Its subtitle tells you all you need to know: “Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices.” According to the author, it has sold more than 250,000 copies. I keep a well-thumbed copy in the upstairs bathroom.
Mr. Gurstelle, a professional engineer, has now returned with a more contemplative if no less wonky and gonzo book called “Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously.” It explores the significance of moderate risk taking to our happiness, well-being and career advancement. (Managers who take the greatest risks are the most successful, he observes.)
It’s also a book that contains meticulous directions for making a real, live, beastly flamethrower in your garage — albeit the propane kind, not the ridiculously dangerous liquid-based variety.
Mr. Gurstelle’s book begins with the words of David Brooks, the New York Times Op-Ed columnist, who complained in 2005 that we are living “in the age of the lily-livered,” where “everything is a pallid parody of itself.”
Mr. Brooks continued: “Gone, at least among the responsible professional class, is the exuberance of the feast. Gone is the grand and pointless gesture.”
For Mr. Gurstelle, this column was as rousing as Henry V’s speech at Agincourt. He is also an admirer of Hunter S. Thompson, who in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” introduced the term “edge-work” into the lingo. (“It was dangerous lunacy,” Mr. Thompson wrote about one of his enterprises, “but it was also the kind of thing a real connoisseur of edge-work could make an argument for.”)
Mr. Gurstelle warns against incorporating Thompson’s hallmarks — “shotguns, LSD and anarchy” — into your lifestyle. Because you are not Hunter S. Thompson. And because he does not want you to die stupidly and young. Just as important, he observes, it is hard to make playing with shotguns, LSD and anarchy artful. And for him, style, ingenuity and playfulness are everything.
In “Absinthe & Flamethrowers,” Mr. Gurstelle burrows into the difference between what he calls “Big-T types” (genuine thrill-seekers) and “little-t’s” (total milquetoasts), while suggesting that most of us dwell somewhere in the middle. He even provides a test that indicates where, on the thrill-seeking scale, a reader stands. He notes “the specific brain chemicals — dopamine, monoamine oxidase and norepinephrine, among others — that underlie the personality traits of risk taking, impulsivity and self-preservation.”
There are pages and pages of warnings in “Absinthe & Flamethrowers.” Some of these are very funny. (“Do not eat any chemicals no matter how tasty they smell.”) All are serious. Mr. Gurstelle does not want you to get hurt. But he notes: “Part of the appeal of living dangerously may be that there is a real possibility of death. However, that possibility should be extremely, extremely remote.”
Mr. Gurstelle exactingly describes how to make your own gunpowder, a substance he calls “the most significant chemical compound mankind has ever developed.” It’s the foundation for many of his book’s activities, the same way the perfect fish stock undergirds dozens of recipes in a cookbook.
Making even small quantities of gunpowder, he adds, “puts you in the rarefied company of such important historical figures as Joan of Arc, Roger Bacon, Mark the Greek, Lammot du Pont, Black Berthold and Leonardo da Vinci.” From there, he’s on to making things like fuses, rockets and an eprouvette, or small cannon.
“Absinthe & Flamethrowers” is not “The Anarchist’s Cookbook Redux.” Making your own gunpowder or small-scale rocket is real work, hardly worth a terrorist’s time.
“Even underage delinquents have easier opportunities for finding materials with which to cause problems,” Mr. Gurstelle writes, “than to go through the rather long and demanding processes described here.”
When Mr. Gurstelle begins to explore things like drinking absinthe, mastering bullwhips, eating hot chili peppers and throwing knives, his book runs briefly into the shallow weeds. There is even a disquisition on “danger dogs,” that is, hot dogs wrapped with grilled bacon. That’s not edge-work, it’s pigging out. I have nothing against any of these things, but Mr. Gurstelle is at his best in the garage with a “This Old Tennis Ball Mortar” sort of project.
“Absinthe & Flamethrowers” ends with Mr. Gurstelle’s own kind of Declaration of Independence, one perhaps worth reading aloud on the Fourth of July, ideally after strapping a battered football helmet onto your head so you look a bit like B. D. from “Doonesbury.”
“We, the intellectually curious, may soon find ourselves trapped in a pen, fenced in by rule-bound sticklerism and overzealous concern for our personal safety, unless we exercise our civil liberties and our curiosity,” he declaims. And so, “It’s time to retake authority from those whose goals are to limit, not expand, intellectual and physical pursuits.”
Bravo, sir. It’s the kind of speech you want to punctuate with a potato cannon blast.