James Ruggia | May 15, 2015 1:33 PM ET
An American Classic Takes a Bow in Britain
An American classic will get some royal affection this June 1, when Paul Theroux, arguably America’s best travel writer since Mark Twain, will receive the 2015 Patron’s Medal from the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London. The award, which comes with the Queen’s seal of approval, stands Theroux among such other recipients as Edmund Hillary, Robert Scott, Richard Byrd, Henry Stanley, Thor Heyerdahl, Jacques Cousteau and Louis Leakey. The ceremony will take place as part of the Society’s annual general meeting.
Reading the best of what’s been written about a destination is the first step in getting the most out of any journey. Most places get their best treatment from historian and novelists, with travelogues a distant third, but Theroux’s writing always makes the grade. For me, he has been at the top of a very short list of great modern travel writers that includes Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, Jan Morris and Fria Stark.
Theroux’s precision phrasing makes him so quotable that his quotes have their own Twitter page, @PaulTherouxQuot. It’s a good place to go for short shots of erudition, much as one might go to a good bar to throw back a shot of Jameson in the afternoon. Especially on those days when most of the writing you see seems to have drained off the back of a box of Captain Crunch.
To be quotable is to be a wit, but Theroux is more than that. While lines such as "Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going" and “In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed,” are refreshing amidst the blather and listicles, his depictions of the people he meets on the road can be so frontal and feature dialogue so authentic, that they seem to lodge inside the reader’s own memories and are recalled as something the reader experienced on the road himself.
When you’ve read a Theroux book you feel that you have experienced the real place, not what’s brochure glamorous about it. He’s as good at writing about Tuesday afternoon as he is when he’s writing about Friday night. He has a sixth sense for what subtly drives the people he meets on the road. The characters often come off a little desperate and that seems to shape them and deepen their humanity. The writing at times catches you off guard with its poetic force and can be as tender with honest people, as it is merciless with fools. It’s never purple or sentimental.
Consider these two lines from the novel, Blinding Light:
“He had fallen in love with her, and he knew it was love because it was agony, the sort you died from.”
“Raise enough objections and you never have to accomplish anything.”
Between these two disparate lines you can find all of the degrees of human commitment to other human beings and when held next to each other, they compel an honest reader to define or locate his own level of commitment in that spectrum. When writing travel or fiction he never fails to write about life.
Theroux has also been a great traveler. He rode a series of trains from London to Japan and then back again on the Trans-Siberian for his breakout book The Great Railway Bazaar and rode by rail down to the tip of South America for The Old Patagonian Express. In The Happy Isles of Oceania he travels as much as possible by sea kayak in the Pacific, sometimes through croc-infested waters. He has just about covered Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. These weren’t luxury trips; he often traveled by rusted rattle trap busses, forgotten trains and ferries and sometimes camped along the way.
Theroux has written almost 50 travelogues, novels, story collections and other books usually focused on the back road places: the villages in Africa, the Pacific and Central America; pre Deng Xiaoping China; and Patagonia. In St. Jack he taps into the world of the exiled freebooter, reminiscent of some of Joseph Conrad’s characters. When Deep South, his next book is published in September, it will mark an incredibly prolific 50 years of writing. Deep South (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) will explore the rural back roads of the American South and the everyday lives of rich and poor alike.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Theroux said “If you’re not making a discovery, there’s no point in traveling or writing. Writing should be based on making a discovery. Let’s say you’re writing a short story or a novel. You get up every morning and you’re writing. And you’re making a discovery in the course of writing; this sentence has never been written before and you write this sentence. And you write another one and another one and another one. You’re inventing the whole time. That’s a form of self-discovery.”
Sometimes reading can be a discovery as well, that is if the writer is as committed to discovery as Paul Theroux.
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