Paul Theroux is the grouchiest travel writer you’ll ever love to read. Sophisticated, arch, sly, wry, outspoken and irritable, with an odd mixture of humility and writerly pride, he’s a perfect armchair traveling companion, astute and opinionated. He travels lean and low, and, like Ray Bradbury’s time traveller in A Sound of Thunder, conscientiously seeks to avoid the butterfly effect.
His erudite, often jaundiced observations — augmented by a rolling bibliography and discussions with other writers on the way (Borges, Murakami) — evince a sharp tang. He doesn’t polish the golden road for his audience, nor describe ravishing sunsets from some obscure vineyard. He travels anonymously in mufti, constructing whimsical, often difficult, travel exercises, such as kayaking the South Pacific in The Happy Isles of Oceania (he retreated to Hawaii utterly dismayed). He also circumnavigated Great Britain in Kingdom by the Sea and once stepped onto the Boston subway with the goal of going to Tierra del Fuego in The Old Patagonian Express.
His most thrilling title, though, is Dark Star Safari, in which he revisits Africa after 40 years (he was in the Peace Corps) traveling from Alexandria to South Africa. His love for every grain of dust is palpable and passionate, and his disappointment acute: “Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it, hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch doctors.” and “…the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help — not to mention celebrities and charity concerts — is a destructive and misleading conceit.”
Though I like all of Theroux’s travel writing much better than any one of his numerous novels, you might enjoy Half-Moon Street or The Mosquito Coast, both made into films.
Best of the Best-Sellers: Try Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, if you haven’t already. It’s really fun, an sensible, intriguing exploration of daily anomalies (although it’s much more than that). Go to Gladwell.com and learn more!
LA Moll is a local book passionista who finds hidden treasures to share. All books reviewed can be purchased at Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village. You may order a copy of any of the books mentioned above by emailing or calling (323-465-1334) Chevaliers, and pick them up at the store. Shop LOCAL.
2 thoughts on “Buzz Book Review: The Grumpiest Travel Companion”
Found you on Twitter. Thanks for this review.
Yes indeed, he is a grouch! And Straight-talking. And incredibly sharp and funny. I also like the way in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star that Theroux admits where he gets things wrong and also the great tips I’m picking up about how to write compelling travel pieces. He’s a very human writer too, I think.
I also picked up a copy of his novel Elephanta Suite to read whilst I’m in India. I’m sure it will be enlightening.
Charlie –in this last week’s New Yorker, John McPhee (another kind of writer, but just as wonderful as Theroux in his way) describes the inner workings of his own writing process. You might like it. The Honolulu Hotel is my fave Theroux novel — and I’ll bet you’ll be able to find his work in 2nd-hand bookshops around India. Bon voyage!