July 1, 2005: Headlines: Figures: COS - Malawi: Writing - Malawi: Mobile Registe: Paul Theroux at Book Expo America

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Paul Theroux at Book Expo America

Paul Theroux at Book Expo America

Book Expo America is not the sort of event one imagines Paul Theroux enjoys very much. In a room big enough to hold a dozen football fields, a human centipede of booksellers and critics weaves from booth to booth. Bagpipers greet visitors at the door, and Harry Potter smiles down on the whole affair from banners above. Author Paul Theroux served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in the 1960's.

Paul Theroux at Book Expo America

The value of visions
Theroux: Figurative voyages aren't enough
Friday, July 01, 2005
Special to the Register

Book Expo America is not the sort of event one imagines Paul Theroux enjoys very much. In a room big enough to hold a dozen football fields, a human centipede of booksellers and critics weaves from booth to booth. Bagpipers greet visitors at the door, and Harry Potter smiles down on the whole affair from banners above.

If Theroux has any complaints about this orgy of mercantilism, he keeps them private. After delivering a breakfast talk to booksellers about his new novel, "Blinding Light," the famously prickly author coasts into the upstairs press room wearing a white linen blazer, white polo shirt, and sneakers. His hand grips a leather travelling satchel, from which he produces a legal pad covered in script.

"This is how I write everything," says Theroux, flipping the page upside down so that its contents are unreadable. He then slides it back to his side of the table. "When I'm in Hawaii, sometimes I go out to the beach and sit in a chair, and I can write for hours like this. And no one ever bothers me."

This mixture of intimacy and withholding is characteristic of Theroux in person. In spite of his quiet, surprisingly gentle voice, there is a current of steel beneath his anglophilic panache. America's most seasoned travel writer is not about to do a striptease to make a few dollars.

That act he saves for his books, nearly 40 in four decades. His works include travelogues, stories, a play, and more than a dozen novels. There is that cringingly honest memoir about his attempt to turn V.S. Naipaul into a mentor, and one novel ("My Secret History") purported to tell the real story of Paul Theroux. As with John Updike, it's easy to wonder if any corner of his life has gone undocumented.

"Blinding Light" reveals there to be at least one left, and it might just be the wildest one yet. Growing out of a "drug tour" Theroux took to Ecuador in 2000, the novel conjures Slade Steadman, a blocked travel writer who goes to Latin America in search of a hallucinogenic drug called ayahuasca. "The man looks for a drug, finds the drug, becomes clairvoyant from it," says Theroux in a rat-a-tat summary of the plot.

Up to a point, Steadman's itinerary resembles Theroux's own journey, though his was taken, he says, with a group of travelers. With "Try everything once" as a motto and William S. Burroughs' "The Yage Letters" as a beacon, Theroux joined a group indulging in what he jokingly calls a little "ethnobotany." They hired a guide and a professional shaman. "The journey Burroughs took was so much tougher," he says now, lamenting the facility of his own trip. "He was mugged, he was always walking down blind alleyways."

After trying the drug and hearing in a tent in Quito that Al Gore had won the presidency, Theroux came back to America, discovered Bush was president, and then quickly went on to Africa, where he had scheduled the trip he later wrote about in "Dark Star Safari." He didn't pick up the novel until nearly two years later, by which point he had also written a collection of stories.

Steadman, too, has little trouble writing after his trek, but he winds up with one striking side effect from his drug-taking: temporary blindness. Consequently, he must rely ever more on his one-time girlfriend, Dr. Ava Kalsina, to whom he dictates the steamy new novel that comes pouring out of him. Stories lead to fantasies which lead to re-enactment, and suddenly Steadman has no problems with "slackness," either.

"I saw writer's block as the impetus," Theroux explains, "and writing as a form of vitality." Perhaps because of the Bad Sex Award his novella "The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro" received in 2003, Theroux bristles at the suggestion that his new novel might be labeled pornographic. "The kind of sex I'm writing about is ecstatic sex," he says. "It's not, you know, running in and nailing the woman next door. It's the ecstatic form of it. Where, in a heightened state of stimulation, so many things are possible."

In preparation for "Blinding Light," Theroux reread erotic masterpieces by the likes of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and novelist J. K. Huysman, but he found there was a limit to what he could take away. "You don't learn a lot from them," he says, fidgeting with the cuff of his shirt sleeve and revealing a small tattoo between thumb and forefinger, near his wrist. "You can only basically write your own. It's so easy to mock eroticism that you just have to hope people aren't going to pick on you."

In recent years, this is something Theroux has had to deal with more and more, both as a traveler and as a writer. His collection of novellas and stories that preceded "Blinding Light" was attacked in The New York Times for the anachronisms of its sexual politics. His recent book about Africa was criticized for being insufficiently respectful of indigenous culture.

Although such cries continue, Theroux is not about to give up on what is essentially a voyeuristic mode of seeing the world. "For most people, voyeurism is a bad thing," he says, but adds in his defense: "For a writer it's essential. Standing and gaping is the role of the writer. It's why I have problems with people staying in one place. I'm not being down on any New York metropolitan writers. But I have a tremendous affinity for writers who don't just live in cities but go out and confront the world."

Although once a small club, this group of globe-trotting writers is slowly growing -- and chances are they have all read Theroux's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Mosquito Coast" or his celebrated account of traveling by rail through Asia, "The Great Railway Bazaar," or his books about Britain, Patagonia, the Pacific, the Mediterranean and America.

So if Theroux continues to seize the opportunity to go where he pleases, he has certainly earned it. He began his writing career in the mid-1960s in Malawi, where he was living as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. His innocence lived and died with the independence movement there, but he remains hopeful today. "People say let's fix Africa -- and I want to say, what's wrong with it?"

Later in the week, at a packed reading at Barnes & Noble, Theroux continues with his theme: "Brad Pitt is on TV now saying save Africa. What the hell does he know?" The crowd ripples uncomfortably, but Theroux presses onward. "There's this book out now that says the world is flat, which I must disagree with. There are countries out there now which are harder to get to than ever. And it's a mistake to think everywhere is the same." He waves his hand at the spread of McDonald's and other multinational corporations. "The only way you're going to know that places are different beneath the facade is to go."

"Just go," he says. "Just go."

John Freeman is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

When this story was posted in June 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Peace Corps Online is proud to announce that the Peace Corps Library is now available online. With over 30,000 index entries in 500 categories, this is the largest collection of Peace Corps related stories in the world. From Acting to Zucchini, you can find hundreds of stories about what RPCVs with your same interests or from your Country of Service are doing today. If you have a web site, support the "Peace Corps Library" and link to it today.

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Story Source: Mobile Registe

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