Theroux has been writing travel books for 35 years, and for almost as long, reviewers have been slandering him (repetitively — they hunt in packs) as “prickly,” ornery, or otherwise disagreeable. I must be unusually tolerant. To me, Theroux seems a model of evenness, neither too crabby nor too tolerant. More to the point: Have these reviewers ever traveled? Long-term travel is misery and loneliness. It is trips in buses where children puke out the window, in filthy boats captained by drunk Albanians, in trains where porters warn you to keep your windows open, so thieves can’t gas you as you sleep. It is grim hotel rooms with stained sheets. A little crabbiness is the only sane response.
In Ghost Train, Theroux revisits his first and most miserable travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar, which established his career and reignited a tradition of wry and witty travel writing that had lain mostly dormant since Robert Byron. Ghost Train doesn’t follow the first book country for country (it bypasses Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan for the Caucasus and Central Asia), and it leaves behind the angst that permeated the first journey. The text of Railway Bazaar didn’t divulge the horrible drama of the author’s life at the time, but readers of Theroux’s later autobiographical works, particularly the novel My Secret History, will know in advance what he reveals in Ghost Train, sometimes in exactly the same phrasing — that when Theroux took his first trip, he was broke, his marriage was in shambles, and he had no clue how he would turn his journey into a book.
Now, three decades later, Theroux travels secure in his career, in the love of his wife, and in the knowledge that whatever book he produces will sell well. On the road, he remains in happy contact with his loved ones and publishers. This equanimity is a jarring change. As recently as 2001, when he traveled for Dark Star Safari, he scorned the advice of friends and relatives who advised him to get a Hotmail account, and he set out from Cairo to Cape Town in gleeful defiance of the deadlines and impositions of the workaday world. Now he carries a BlackBerry and visits cybercafes to chat with his wife and write freelance articles as he goes.
Although I’m happy for Theroux and wish him the best in his marriage, I mourn the aimless, duly agitated wanderer who made his previous books such treasures. Theroux’s best work has been born of hardship, misery, and betrayal. The Happy Isles of Oceania aches with depression and divorce. The Mosquito Coast is about the tyranny and self-ruin of unhinged genius. And Sir Vidia’s Shadow — a memoir unaccountably deplored by reviewers, but in my view incapable of being overpraised — is fraught with anxiety about everything from reputation to money to friendship.
In this book, Theroux sidesteps discomfort by staying in hotels the younger man couldn’t have afforded. He invokes the privilege of a distinguished writer to visit other distinguished writers who, for good reason, would not have given an appointment to the rest of us, or to a shaggy youngster like Theroux was in the 1970s. The conversations with Arthur C. Clarke, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk, and Pico Iyer are uniformly excellent literary entertainment, but they do not provide a feel for the places where they occur. The old Theroux was a prisoner of his itinerary and a hostage of the other buffoons and bores with whom he shared his train compartments. His confinement, and the sense that his experiences were not entirely optional, were important to his narrative. Now, though buffoons on trains are an ineradicable species, the most painful parts of his travels seem to have disappeared. His narrative is poorer for their absence: he sounds light and pampered, an unwelcome contrast to the Theroux for whom every leg of the journey had its tortures, and whose tortures so often seemed, in the end, the best parts. The old Theroux had to endure his compartment-mates. The new Theroux, when he meets a gang of thugs on a Central Asian train, can just bribe the porter to upgrade him to a private berth. In doing so, it often seems, he is upgrading himself out of discomfort and into blandness.
But even the spoiled golden-years Theroux has moments of sublime insight. What other travel writer can so credibly refuse to be impressed with India’s tech boom? Theroux notes that much of the country appears not to have changed in 30 years. And what other travel writer combines his appetite for each country’s high culture with his appetite for its pornography? Theroux samples the porn everywhere he goes; most of it, though repulsive and unerotic, does seem to be a window to the national soul. (I hear echoes here of a letter V. S. Naipaul once wrote Theroux — and which Theroux says he relished — deriding the Danes and their skin-mags as “full of ice and death and sullen coitus.”) Ghost Train is probably the weakest of his travel books, but even in failure, there are moments of success.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com