Paul Theroux may be pompous, self-important, cynical, and grumpy. He may even be, as accused by a heckler in Australia, "a wanker." So what? The man is prolific--having penned 36 books--and when he's inspired, his insights and sparkling writing are so startling that it's easy to forgive him for his occasional crankiness. Besides, as he reminds readers frequently, he is a man who takes pen to paper for a living; as the title essay points out: "Normal, happy, well-balanced individuals seldom become imaginative writers...."
In Fresh Air Fiend, Theroux's pen serves him well with astute, lively pieces that stray far beyond simple "travel essays" and reveal his self-inflicted lifestyle of compulsive travel, writing, and alienation. In this collection--containing mostly previously published magazine pieces written over the past 15 years--there's a strong autobiographical streak, as well as historical perspectives and a sardonic view on aging. "One of the more bewildering aspects of growing older," he writes in "'Memory and Creation,'" "is that people constantly remind you of things that never happened."
Now nearly 60, Theroux has lived a rich, varied life: the book jumps from post-Mao China and years spent as an Africa-based Peace Corps volunteer in the '60s to turtle watching in Hawaii and kayaking on Cape Cod; the jumbled collection even includes pieces on other travel writers (Bruce Chatwin, Graham Greene, and William Least Heat-Moon) and the film adaptation of his novel The Mosquito Coast. A chronic sense of aloneness permeates all these pieces--be it the lost traveler paddling through fog, the lone writer living without a phone, or the hermetic trekker who can't speak the native language. Most touching: a short sketch of a road trip when he's lost, his wife is anxious, and the children are fighting; Theroux doesn't want the moment to end and soon enough he returns to his self-imposed alienation. It's that perpetual sense of loneliness and not fitting in that seems to motivate Theroux in many of these essays. Theroux may be getting older, even nostalgic, but as these vibrant essays show, he sure isn't getting stale. --Melissa Rossi
From Publishers Weekly
In the 15 years since his first collection, Sunrise with Seamonsters, novelist and travel writer Theroux has gotten around. He's sailed the Yangtze River in China, crossed the U.S. in the comfort of a private rail car and camped during an ice storm in Maine. This collection gathers more than three dozen essays about these adventures and others, along with some book reviews. There is wide variety here, but Theroux's excellent observations of factory life in China rest uncomfortably on the same pages as his pride in exploring such places as Uganda, Honduras and Sicily before the "deluge" of other visitors (especially the "supine" tourists) swept in. Beyond the fun of learning about different parasites and reveling in his home turf around Cape Cod, these essays reveal much about the author himself. A solitary experience that requires self-imposed exile, optimism and a fair amount of "self-delusion," travel is also, as Theroux notes, "almost entirely an inner experience." At its best, travel writing lends insight into the human experience; at its worst, it settles for lighthearted navel-gazing. This collection encompasses both ends of the spectrum--from Theroux's revelation that "travel always involves a degree of trespass" to his whimsical declaration that he reached the peak of "fresh air fiendishness" on a hot, moonlit night on the Filipino island of Palawan: "Fulfilled, content, naked, alone, happy. I thought: I am a monkey." Author tour. (May)
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