Sex, Drugs and Fish Salad

Travel Books: Paul Theroux's new novel, "Blinding Light," features a travel-writing protagonist with a remarkable resemblance to the master himself. The result, writes Frank Bures, is unlike so many of his other literary efforts. It is, perhaps ironically, a good airplane book.

08.14.05 | 11:29 PM ET

Blinding Light About 50 pages into Paul Theroux’s new novel, Blinding Light, I started to get the feeling I was somewhere I’d been before—deep in the rainforest, surrounded by idiots, despair permeating the air like fog.

The book was about a travel writer named Slade Steadman, who signs up for a “drug tour” in Ecuador to try to break through his writer’s block. The trip is miserable—all the people on it are cardboard cutouts of the most obnoxious travelers you can imagine: whining, boorish, vile. But in the end, Steadman has a fantastic drug experience and comes home with the seeds of his new project: a novel.

This all sounded very familiar. 

On my floor, under a pile of magazines, I dug out the May 2005 issue of Men’s Journal. I flipped through the pages and in the back, I found it: a story by a travel writer who signed up for a “drug tour” in Ecuador to try to break his bout of writer’s block. The trip was miserable—almost all the people on it were cardboard cutouts of the most obnoxious travelers you can imagine: whining, boorish, vile. But in the end, the writer had a fantastic drug experience and came home with the seeds of his new project:  a novel.

This writer, of course, was named Paul Theroux.

I put the magazine back on the floor and went on with the book, but now there was a problem. Whether this was meta-fiction or laziness or something in between, I had no idea. But the parallels between the fictional writer and the factual one were so inevitable, that from then on I could barely separate the two. When Steadman bumped into author “Bill” Styron at the airport, I wondered if Theroux had.  When Steadman schmoozed with the President at Martha’s Vineyard, I wondered if Theroux had. When Steadman had wild sex after coming back from his drug tour, I wondered (but didn’t really want to know) if Theroux had. When Steadman wrote his novel by dictation, I wondered if Theroux had.  (It felt like it.)

So on top of the problems already weighing the book down, there was this other rack full of baggage: the lurking presence of Paul Theroux, author, traveler (but never a tourist), and writer of some of the most celebrated travelogues ever written, such as
The Great Railway Bazaar, and the Old Patagonian Express. Over the years, he has written some 13 travel books, on top of 26 novels, including Jungle Lovers and The Mosquito Coast, which are less celebrated. (One friend I told about the book said, “I didn’t know he wrote novels.”) In others, such as “My Other Life,” he has played with the line that separates the two.

But in “Blinding Light,” Theroux seems to have continued somewhat in this vein, and even has Steadman utter things like, “He called it fiction, because every written thing was fiction.” And in this new book, he creates something that may have seemed impossible: fiction about travel writing. It is a subject he knows much about, and as a result, we get all his pet theories on it, long lists of complaints about the business and a few insights, all uttered by Theroux’s fictional avatar, Steadman.

Unfortunately, though, Steadman turns out to be an unpleasant sort. He loathes his fellow tourists. He berates his doctor. He lords over partygoers. He insults anyone beneath him—that is, almost everyone. And for me, this became a more general problem with the book: There wasn’t one person in it who I would want to meet, spend any time with, or go on a 400-plus page journey with, no matter how enlightening they were or how many graphic sex scenes their travels were peppered with. Pretty much everyone in the book is unpleasant too.

Theroux likes to complain about his misanthropic reputation, which I know he doesn’t deserve. I met him once at a reading for “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” and asked him annoying questions. He was friendly and gracious and even indulgent. Others I’ve talked to report the same thing: He seems like a pretty good guy.

That may be so, but one reason he’s gotten this reputation could be that so many of the characters in his fiction (and his nonfiction) are such miserable bastards. We all know the feeling of being trapped with a boatload of morons. But how many people would really say things like, “I peeked inside one of those huts. You know, they don’t accessorize at all,” or “Those natives in that scruffy village were cheeky monkeys”?

I’m as jaded as the next guy, but I don’t think there are many people that stupid out there. And if there are, I don’t want read about them unless there’s something more to it than that. And this is where “Blinding Light” seems to have missed the point. 

Theroux relishes drawing the surface details, the minutiae of place and person in sharp relief. But the point of literature is to take us beneath those surfaces and to get at the complexities that lie there. “Blinding Light” has good storytelling in it, but it is more entertainment than art. It is, perhaps ironically, a good airplane book.

Steadman returns back from Ecuador with a healthy supply of datura, the drug that gave him revelations. The only side effect is that he’s temporarily blinded, but in exchange he gets a kind of preternatural vision, an existential echolocation, which lets him not only appear to read eye charts at the doctor’s office, but to look into people’s souls, to be a prophet, to have deep insights, such as his observation that, “sex is the truth.”

Maybe. But sex, as most of us know, can also be a lie. Steadman seems blind not only to the complications of sex, but to the complications of life in general and within the people around him. And in the attempt to evoke or raw truth, we get hokey scenes like this one: “Her wetness had the slippery feel of a sea creature, a small warm squid, like the fish salad he had poked his finger into earlier, but warmer, wetter, softer.”

It’s not all that bad, and some of the sex writing is actually well done, but these are diversions from the main story, which is one of karmic arrogance and atonement, which I won’t give away. (And don’t worry, it is spelled out.)

Regardless, Steadman goes on to write his book, which he calls, “a novel as an interior journey that would also be an erotic masterpiece, wandering across areas of human experience that had been regarded as forbidden.” And later he tells us that. “His thinly fictionalized narrative expressed the deepest part of himself, exploring the farthest recesses of his memory, his oldest and most enduring feelings, in the ultimate book of revelation.”

By this point, I knew which book he was talking about, because it had become clear where fact and fiction had gone separate ways.


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


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