Fresh-air Fiend: Travel Writings, 1985-2000 Paperback – 22 Feb 2001
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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 is a strong autobiographical streak, as well as historical perspectives and a sardonic view on ageing. "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 1960s 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 traveller 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, Amazon.com
About the Author
Paul Theroux was born in Medford Massachusetts, in 1941, and published his first novel, WALDO, in 1967. His subsequent novels include PICTURE PALACE, winner of the Whitbread Prize for Fiction, THE MOSQUITO COAST, and the hugely acclaimed, KOWLOON TONG. His travel books include THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR and THE PILLARS OF HERCULES.
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Top Customer Reviews
In parts very good and always well written. It is often funny and has a great deal of fantastic travel that we all look for. recommended for those who want a mix between travel and fact.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The discussions of Theroux's own novels, and how he came to write them, are also particularly enjoyable and illuminating. The story of "Mosquito Coast" covers not only the writing of the book, but the production of the movie as well, and Theroux's description of how it brought out the "Allie" in all involved- Producer, director, actors- is both witty and revealing. The story behind "Milroy the Magician" will prove interesting to anyone who has read "The Happy Isles of Oceania".
The travel stories, which do make up the bulk of the book, will be familiar in scope and tone to anyone who has read Theroux. Here he is, driving through remote Africa, wandering about in Singapore or kayaking alone around Christmas Island amid the wildlife.
Reviews of Theroux's travel writing often center on what a misanthrope he must be, or on the accuracy of details and minutia contained in the books. But Theroux himself points out in an essay on his late friend Bruce Chatwin that his books are not meant to be a guide to a country, a people or even a city; they are about the trip itself- his trip, not yours or anyone else's trip. In that sense, even his worst critics must admit that he succeeds marvelously well.
With ascerbic wit he provides a wake-up call to those whose travel rarely goes beyond the tour bus window. He gives rich detail to his writing -- describing not only the place but the skies, the earth, the flora, the people, the smells. Travel is not always about destination but the journey to get there and Theroux is a master at bringing us to the very place he happens to be. His mix of political and historical commentary also pauses the reader to think of places beyond their obvious pleasures,colors and travel brochure facts.
He has a rare and candid ability to introduce the reader not only to the people living at the source but also those traveling to the source. We find humor in his descriptions and yet wonder if we could be laughing at our very selves. Through his eyes we become better travelers and from his voice we give second thought to the impact we hope to make as we travel throughout the world.
His travels in Africa are breathlessly exciting; his early thoughts from visiting China are eeirly accurate; his adventures in kayaks will have us all paddling in strange waters and seeing the world, perhaps for the first time.
His stories of his stories are fascinating and we applaud him for introducing us to his favorite writers and works of travel. He leaves us with much to think about and volumes of other's work to absorb. This is a wonderful guide book for anyone who likes to travel, hopes to travel or simply enjoys colorful, well-written, thoughful detail on places and people near and far.
For one thing Theroux is particularly good at stripping away the pretentions of the English lower-middle class. (He does this with many classes, but this one seems to be the victim more often than others) Take , for example, his note on on life in the inner suburbs of London: 'the secrets,the hurts, the whispers, the stifled lust...the savagery of the workplace; the eternally twitching curtains.' If anybody has spent time in this area, or have been inflicted by the presence of those with similar roots, I suspect he/she will find more than enough satisfaction in knowing that others are on the same page, as it were.
Almost all of the chapters in this collection are worth reading, and some several times over. Try "Parasites I Have Known," and his views on other writers, from Chatwin to Simpson.
All and all, a good read, and Fresh Air Fiend should be a nice introduction to other Theroux pieces.