Would the Pandemic Stop Paul Theroux From Traveling?

For five days, Paul Theroux, the famous American travel writer, ate boiled eggs, microwave and wine.

He had escaped in a rented Jeep Compass the day before Thanksgiving, driving from Cape Cod, where he has a home, to Los Angeles, where he handed over boxes of his papers to the Huntington Library and then flew away. in Hawaii, his other home.

Theroux said he observed a landscape largely evacuated from the coronavirus pandemic, from deserted motels in Okla Sallisaw and Tucumcari, NM, where he stopped sleeping, in a Tennessee lounge where he had his solitary Thanksgiving meal and the In-N-Out Burger in Kingman, Ariz., his last day on the road. Every night, as is his habit, he wrote down everything he had seen.

“It was like a shot at America,” he said in a television interview on the North Coast of Oahu, where he has lived for more than 30 years.

Theroux turns 80 in April. For a generation of backpackers who have gone gray, ragged paper bills for their travels through China, Africa and South America have been a product of adventure, inspirational books under many mosquito nets. He has a new novel by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April, “Under the Wave at Waimea”, and his best-known book (and his own favorite among them), “The Mosquito Coast”, has been adapted into a TV series starring . his nephew, Justin Theroux, will also premiere next month.

If this seems like a moment to appreciate a fearless life and an almost extreme writing production, Theroux does not see himself as approaching anywhere. Before the Covid-19 hit, he had plans to go to Central Africa. It is deep in another novel and completes a new collection of stories. He does not seem to be watching the number of books he has written: “Fifty something maybe?” (It really is 56.)

Travel narratives are his signature, a genre he grabbed in the early 1970s out of desperation when, as a young novelist with a few books under his belt, he came up with ideas. He decided to cross part of the world by train, starting from London, where he lived, through the Middle East to Southeast Asia, returning to the Trans-Siberian Railway. The bill that emerged from this tedious journey, The Grand Railway Bazaar, sold over 1.5 million copies and was inspired by bookshelf-based bookshelves built on similar ideas.

Just over the last decade, Theroux wrote about driving solo through Mexico (always traveling alone) in “On the Plain of Snakes” (2019). an exploration of some of his country’s poorest areas in “Deep South” (2015); and a trip to Africa, “The Last Train to Zona Verde” (2013), in which he returned to areas he met as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1960s.

This species – the stranger arrives and offers an assessment of the stranger – has lost ground over the years to travel memorabilia such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” which describes the inland routes as much as the people who encountered and places they saw. Theroux, sitting in his office scattered with objects from these voyages – tiny Buddhas, the skull of a monkey given to Bali, wooden Polynesian weapons – defended his approach.

“It’s more important than ever to find the empathy of meeting another person, who is in another culture, to smell it, to suffer it, to face the difficulties and inconveniences of travel, it all matters,” Theroux said. . He referred to Nobel Prize-winning author VS Naipaul, who at various points in Theroux’s career was a mentor and foe: “I believe that the present, which has been accurately confiscated, foretells the future.”

And Theroux agrees. “You do not need to make predictions,” he said. “You just write about the things you see, the things you hear, the things you feel, and when you write it, you are a prophet.”

But there is not much thirst for prophets these days, especially those who offer judgments of other cultures. Theroux seems to be aware of this, or at least the idea that his way of writing about the world is weakening.

His new novel tells the story of Joe Sharkey, an old North Coast surfer who looks like a character Theroux knows on the beaches near his home. Sharkey strongly feels that he has been overtaken by younger surfers with great suggestions. For him, surfing was a way of life, an existence focused on the dishes of the waves, a devotion to the ocean.

Theroux sees surfing as a metaphor for his life. All he wanted was to be able to write non-stop, without distracting the car alarms out of his window or the accounts that arrive at the post office, without having to do anything else for money, but to sit for a day. by day in his office. In many ways, Theroux has succeeded. But like the surfer beyond his protagonist, he is not immune to being forgotten, with the feeling that the world has become hostile to the pure joy of the waves. There is a fear of being overlooked, unknown.

“I was once a hot shot, I was once a punk,” Theroux said. “And whoever was once punk, you are finally older, and you see the change of years as it is. We all feel it, every writer. They may deny it. But they do, everyone feels it. “

There was no sign of Theroux imposing rage. The reviews of his books often touched their harsh ironic tone, a sense of consent towards the people he meets and the fantastic characters he creates. Get Stephen King’s review in The Book Review for the lightly autobiographical “Mother Land” from 2017, which King found as an “exercise in confidence and pride”.

Theroux believes that readers may perceive him as unstable, but he believes that the problem may be with readers. “You can not be a grumpy traveler. “You will not get anywhere,” he said. “You will be killed, you will be infected, you will not be able to travel. So you have to match people. I think I’m labeled indifferent perhaps because if you look at things the way they are, and just describe things the way they are, you may be accused of being bad. “

One of his oldest friends, British travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban, with whom Theroux has exchanged manuscripts over the decades, believes critics have missed a major change in Theroux’s writing. “Compared to the tone of his previous work, his sarcasm, his sharp observation and always from the point of view of an absolute stranger, Paul has developed a kind of humanity in recent books that I have never seen before,” Raban said.

He pointed to a 2019 essay on a pet goose named Willy, which Theroux raised from birth and hugged in his arms as he died, the animal’s blue eyes turned gray, at a time described as sensitive to pain. For Raban, this piece, like the previous Theroux books, signals an approach closer to the reader. “From savage sarcasm to tenderness is a very long journey,” Raban said.

Age also played a role. Theroux sees advantages in this, such as the older surfer whose reduced stamina forces him to look for new, smarter ways to drive his dashboard – after all, Theroux points out, he was a man in the late 1940s, Garrett McNamara, who surfed the biggest recorded wave. Theroux can see how traveling as an octogen will have its advantages. In some cultures, the elderly are invisible, a benefit in many situations, he said.

In other places he has visited, the elderly are treated with respect. “Either they jump out of their chair and give it to you, or they just ignore you,” Theroux said.

And where would he like to go next? “There are many places I would like to go,” he said. “And there are many places I have never been. I have never been to Scandinavia, but I have no desire to go there. “

What he wants to do is come back. There is value in returning to a country you visited when you were younger. They both signal time in your life and act as a kind of measure of how a society is changing.

“It tells you about the direction of the world,” Theroux said. “What will happen to the world?” And you find that you can do that by visiting a place I knew well. Return to England, return to Malawi, return to China, to India. It is exciting. So, if you ask me which trip I look forward to: I like going back to places. “

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