I reviewed Paul Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde in The American Scholar.
I reviewed Elizabeth Becker’s Overbooked in the Wall Street Journal.
I traveled to hyperinflationary Iran for The Atlantic.
I’ve always wanted to visit Mercury, Nevada, site of numerous huge holes in the ground from when the US government blew up nuclear weapons there. Here I report from the proving grounds for The Atlantic.
Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.
If the purpose of travel is to be disabused of illusions, then Ellis Hock, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River, has spent his airfare wisely. Recently separated from his bullying wife, Hock sells his Medford, Massachusetts haberdashery and sets out to the village in Malawi where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago. As a young man in that village, he found and lost love, became adept at handling serpents, and spent his life’s happiest years improving the village. Everything in his life since then — a marriage undermined by his wandering eye, a business crashing toward obsolescence, a daughter greedy for an early taste of her inheritance — has reeked of failure, and eventually the temptation to escape to Africa proves irresistible.
Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review .
The Masque of Africa
If you’re bothered by political incorrectness, discovering that V. S. Naipaul has written a travel book about Africa should have you ready to assume the brace position. It’s like finding out that Norman Mailer left behind an unpublished manuscript detailing his true views on women, or that the elderly Ezra Pound wrote an epic poem about Jewish bankers. According to his erstwhile protégé Paul Theroux, Naipaul once remarked that “Africans need to be kicked” and said their continent is “obscene, fit only for second-rate people.” Anyone who has read his novels and travelogues knows that he despises illiteracy, violence, and above all the failure to bend the knee to literary genius. When Naipaul meets Africa, then, expect a train wreck.
Naipaul’s best and worst work has come from Africa. A Bend in the River, set in Zaire, is among the finest novels ever to emerge from the continent, but Half a Life, set partly in Mozambique, must rank among the most sluggish victory laps by a recent Nobel Laureate. His present book, The Masque of Africa, is Naipaul’s first travel writing since 1998’s Beyond Belief, and it takes on the question of African belief—the fundamental views of the world held by people he meets in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa. For Naipaul the Uganda portion marks a return: he lived and taught there in the 1960s, a catastrophic period portrayed memorably by Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow. He seems to have mellowed considerably since then. Theroux’s Naipaul was called upon to judge a campus literary competition and announced that the entries were so bad that he would award only one prize, called Third Prize. Now Naipaul mostly refrains from insulting his hosts and even singles out one as having “merit” as a poet.
Originally appeared in Foreign Policy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, high priest of American letters and patron saint of homebodies everywhere, reserved his harshest words for the voyager. Travel, he famously wrote, “is a fool’s paradise,” a sickness that afflicts those who don’t realize that wisdom is inward. Instead of broadening the mind, travel narrows it.
In the February/March print edition of Bookforum, I review the latest by Ted Conover.