The wanderer

Fresh-Air Fiend: travel writings 1985-2000

Paul Theroux <em>Hamish Hamilton, 480pp, £20</em>


Dipping in and out of Fresh-Air Fiend, I am struck by what a damn good life Paul Theroux has had: a life on the road achieved through his own will and energy - not from privilege, but from a desire for adventure. Raised in a large, noisy, talkative family in Massachusetts, Theroux went away often in search of personal space. One day, he went and simply never returned. Such an urge for exile helped mould him into a writer and traveller, and his reflections on his early career provide the best reason to read this new anthology.

Theroux travelled for more than a decade in Africa, Asia and Europe before he wrote his first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar. An advocate of disconnection and the state of "being away" as the path to self-discovery, he only wrote the book because he thought his career in fiction was over. On that long trip, he was permanently homesick and unconvinced about what he was doing. So he survived by taking copious notes, at least to give himself the illusion of work.

Eleven travel books later, Fresh-Air Fiend is further evidence that that first trip paid off. The anthology contains his shorter travel writings on trips through America, Africa, the Pacific and China, including the full text of Sailing Through China, the often bleak account of his 1980 trip up the Yangtze river with a group of American millionaires. There are good pieces on his own and other people's novels and travel books, on his obsession with small boats, on travel illnesses, bizarre customs and fellow exiles (including a meditation on his exasperating friend Bruce Chatwin). There is even a curious piece, originally written for Vogue, on heterosexual desire, about which he perhaps knows too much.

This being Theroux, though, the first person singular dominates; but his egoism is always balanced by an impressive knowledge of the politics and geography of the places he visits, and an acute attention to detail. He is also frank and funny. British readers will be amused to know that their country taught him that hardship, far from being "the long vividly difficult road over the Tibetan plateau", is actually the "18 years I spent on the South Circular Road, which is almost indescribably depressing". Describing a trip to England in 1993, Theroux comments on the "London traits" of "lowered voices, lateness, pessimism, pallor, a look of fatigue, rumpled clothes, bad haircuts, the stillness of Tube passengers". Never mind the rat urine poisoning the River Avon, the grimness of a drizzly Catford morning or the foibles of the BBC.

Theroux may be one of our most prolific travel writers, but he is also one of our best. The reason for this, I think, is his ability to convey the optimism of travel while refusing to tell lies about what he encounters. You feel hopeful when you read him, and you feel that you're being told the truth, and that's a good enough reason to stay with him.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - Caprice