A retrospective of the prolific writer’s essays, travel stories, and reflections.
In his latest work of nonfiction, Theroux (Mother Land, 2017, etc.) intersperses feature-length articles, essays, and celebrity portraits with miscellaneous shorter pieces on writing, love, and life, including one unforgettable character sketch of his enigmatic father. His many self-assigned subjects during this 15-year span include several complex and contradictory personalities, such as his close friend Hunter S. Thompson, “a boisterous recluse who also needed to be seen and heard,” and a professional dominatrix, “Nurse Wolf,” whom the author admires for her levelheadedness and her striking degree of empathy. When traveling abroad, Theroux prefers to be “humble, patient, solitary, anonymous, and alert,” and he downplays his own moderate celebrity, preferring public transit to state-sponsored tourism. Whether recounting a “drug tour” of the Amazon or describing the many guises of corruption and exploitation that he witnessed during the 1960s in Africa—he served in the Peace Corps in what is now Malawi—his stories are less travelogues than well-curated meditations on some of the places, people, and moments he has experienced in a lifetime of rambles. Although Theroux claims to avoid all contemporary novels, lest their voices intrude on his creative process, he portrays himself as the last in a long tradition of travel-writing novelists, among them Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad, whose work he enjoyed discussing with Michael Jackson. Theroux manages an easygoing, self-effacing presence in his essays, as though his ego were spent somewhere around his 15th novel, and he locates his often witless or mystified self squarely within the frame of each encounter. His spare, unhurried prose style, which is rarely long-winded, betrays a novelist’s relish for illuminating details and devastating turns of phrase. Yet despite his long and prolific career, Theroux still finds himself gobsmacked by wonder at what life has shown him, whether traipsing through the Neverland ranch with Elizabeth Taylor or trying to interview Robin Williams while caught up in the cloud of his obsessive, frenetic improvising.
A masterfully simple and satisfying collection.