Would the Pandemic Stop Paul Theroux From Traveling?

Paul Theroux, the famous American travel writer, ate hard-boiled eggs, microwave dal, and wine for five days.

The day before Thanksgiving he had driven across the country on a rented Jeep compass, from Cape Cod, where he has a house, to Los Angeles, where he put boxes of his papers in his archives at the Huntington Library, and then flew on to Hawaii, his other home.

Theroux said he watched a landscape that had been largely emptied by the coronavirus pandemic, from abandoned motels in Sallisaw, Okla., And Tucumcari, NM, where he fell asleep, to a rest stop in Tennessee, where he enjoyed his lonely Thanksgiving – Had food, and the In-N-Out Burger in Kingman, Arizona, on his last day out. As is his custom, he wrote down everything he saw in longhand every night.

“It was like a pan shot of America,” he said in a video interview from the north coast of Oahu, where he has lived back and forth for over 30 years.

Theroux will be 80 years old in April. For a generation of backpackers who have now turned gray, the ragged paperback reports of his hikes through China, Africa and South America were an impetus for adventure, inspirational Bibles under many mosquito nets. He released a new Houghton Mifflin Harcourt novel in April, “Under the Wave at Waimea,” and his most famous book (and his own favorite among them), “The Mosquito Coast,” has been turned into a television series starring His nephew Justin Theroux will also premiere next month.

When this seems like a moment to take stock of a fearless life and an almost extreme edition of writing, Theroux sees himself nowhere near finished. Before Covid-19 struck, he had plans to go to central Africa. He is deeply immersed in another novel and finishes a new collection of stories. He doesn’t seem to keep track of the number of books he’s written: “Maybe fifty?” (It’s actually 56.)

Travel stories are his signature style, a genre he desperately picked up in the early 1970s when, as a young writer with a few books under his belt, he ran out of ideas. He decided to cross part of the world by rail, starting from London, where he lived, through the Middle East and all the way to Southeast Asia, to return on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The report that emerged from that arduous journey, “The Great Railway Bazaar,” sold over 1.5 million copies and inspired shelves upon shelves of books based on similar ideas.

For the past decade, Theroux has written in On the Plain of Snakes (2019) about how to drive alone through Mexico (he always travels alone). an exploration of some of the poorest regions of his own country in “Deep South” (2015); and a trip to Africa, “The Last Train to Zona Verde” (2013), in which he returned to regions he had met in the 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer.

This genre – the outsider comes and offers an assessment of the foreign – has lost ground over the years to travel to memories like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”, which describe journeys through the inner terrain as well as the people, they met and places they saw. Theroux, sitting at his desk littered with artifacts from those trips – tiny Buddhas, the skull of a scrimshawed monkey he got in Bali, Polynesian wooden weapons – defended his approach.

“It is more necessary than ever to find the empathetic experience of meeting another person, being in a different culture, smelling them, suffering, enduring the hardships and annoyances of traveling, all of which are important,” said Theroux. He quoted the Nobel Prize-winning author VS Naipaul, who served as a mentor and archenemy at various points in Theroux’s career: “I believe that the present, grasped accurately, predicts the future.”

And Theroux agrees. “You don’t have to make any predictions,” he said. “You only write about the things you see, the things you hear, the things you feel, and when you write that you are a prophet.”

But there is no great thirst for prophets these days, especially for those who judge other cultures. Theroux seems to be aware of this, or at least the notion that his way of writing about the world is fading.

His new novel tells the story of Joe Sharkey, an aging north coast surfer who resembles characters Theroux met on the beaches near his home. Sharkey has the acute feeling of being overtaken by younger surfers with great support. For him surfing was a way of life, an existence that was about catching waves, an obligation to the ocean.

Theroux sees surfing as a metaphor for his own life. All he ever wanted was to be able to write non-stop, without the distraction of car alarms outside his window or bills in the mail, without having to do anything for money other than at his desk every day to sit. Theroux achieved this in many ways. But like the surfer after his prime, he is not immune to the feeling of being forgotten, to the feeling that the world is hostile to the sheer joy of the waves. There is a fear of being overlooked and unread.

“I was a hot shot once, I was the punk once,” said Theroux. “And everyone who was once punk is older at some point and sees the turn of the years as it is. We all feel it, every writer. You could deny it. But they all feel it. “

There was no sign of Theroux’s famous grumpiness. Critics of his books have often touched on her cruelly ironic tone, a sense of condescension towards people he meets and fictional characters he creates. Take Stephen King’s 2017 assessment of The Book Review of the slightly autobiographical “motherland” which King found “an exercise in arrogance and self-pity for oneself.”

Theroux gets to understand that readers may find him moody, but he believes the problem may lie with the readers. “You can’t be a grumpy traveler. You’re not going to get anywhere, ”he said. “You will be killed, you will be insulted, you will not be able to travel. So you have to get along with people. I think that I am characterized as quarrelsome, perhaps because when you see things as they are, you can be accused of being rude and you just describe things as they are. “

One of his oldest friends, the British travel writer and writer Jonathan Raban, with whom Theroux exchanged manuscripts for decades, believes critics missed an important change in Theroux’s writing. “Compared to the tone of the previous work, its sarcasm, its keen observation, and always from the perspective of an absolute outsider, Paul has developed a kind of humanity in recent books that I hadn’t seen before,” Raban said.

He pointed to a 2019 essay about a pet goose named Willy, whom Theroux raised from birth and held in his arms when he died. The animal’s blue eyes turned gray in a moment that was described as painful vulnerability. For Raban, like the last books by Theroux, this piece means an approach to the reader. “From wild sarcasm to tenderness is quite a long journey,” said Raban.

Age also played its part. Theroux sees benefits in this, as does the older surfer, whose lower endurance forces him to look for new, smarter ways to ride his board – after all, it was a man in his late 40s, Garrett McNamara, who surfed the largest recorded wave. Theroux can see how traveling pays off as an eighty-year-old. In some cultures, the elderly are invisible, which is beneficial in many situations, he said.

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

And where could he want to go next? “There are a lot of places I would like to go,” he said. “And there are a lot of places I’ve never been. I’ve never been to Scandinavia, but I don’t feel like going there. “

What he would most like to do is return. Going back to a country that you visited when you were younger is valuable. It marks both the time in your own life and a kind of measure of how a society is changing.

“It tells you about the direction of the world,” said Theroux. “What will happen to the world? And you find that you can extrapolate that by revisiting a place you knew well. Back to England, back to Malawi, back to China, to India. It’s a fascinating thing. So if you ask me which trip I am most looking forward to, I love going back to places. “

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