Paul Theroux is one of the world’s great travel writers. I’ve read a number of his books (Riding the Iron Rooster, the Old Patagonian Express, and The Pillars of Hercules, to name just a few) and, oddly enough, he is my favorite travel writer and my least favorite travel writer.
How, you might ask, can both halves of that seemingly contradictory equation be true?
Well, on one hand, I admire Theroux because he takes on itineraries no other travel writer would attempt and subjects himself to ordeals no other travel writer could imagine. (For example, The Old Patagonia Express details a train-only trip that Theroux begins on Boston’s subway and ends months later on a ramshackle old train at Argentina’s most southerly Patagonian tip. Who in their right mind would undertake such a journey?)
On the other hand, he is one of the unhappiest souls on the face of the earth. He hates almost everywhere he goes and everything he does and everyone he meets.
As a result, his prose is often simultaneously fascinating and depressing. Yet, the man really has no equal when it comes to travel writing. He summed the secret to his success in this short paragraph from The Pillars of Hercules:
“The most tedious travel book in my opinion is the one in which the author is being vague about having a wonderful time. All this jauntiness seems like boasting to me, and dishonest boasting too, since the writers must be hiding so much misery. We all know that a vast proportion of travel is accumulated nuisance; but if boredom or awfulness is handled with skill and concrete detail, it is funnier and truer than the sunniest prose.”
I am the first to admit that I am not a tenth the writer that Paul Theroux is. Everyone else who reads this blog will immediately vie to be second.
So for your sake, we will follow Theroux’s advice and attempt to avoid any jaunty boasting. And needless to say, we will also avoid all the accumulated nuisance and misery we possibly can.