Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Not-cranky travel writing!

Paul Theroux earned a reputation as a rather downbeat realistic novelist (THE MOSQUITO COAST, MY SECRET HISTORY), & as a really cranky travel writer (A KINGDOM BY THE SEA, THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR, RIDING THE IRON ROOSTER, FRESH AIR FIEND).
Part of the fun of reading Theroux's often marvelous travel books is his grumpiness -- his sour moods, the way he depicts the odd people he runs in2, the way he always seems 2 get them embarassing themselves with their own words.
Tho there's some of that in THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA (1992), Theroux is happy thru most of it as he island-hops his way across the Pacific Ocean in a kayak -- & at the end he arrives at a new home ... in Hawaii.
The book opens w/ Theroux reeling from his separation & divorce, using the Xcuse of a book tour as a reason 2 run off 2 Australia & New Zealand. The opening section in which Theroux meets the Kiwis is vivid & hilarious, & U will SEE some of the breathtaking places Theroux visits in those islands, so vivid R his Dscriptions.
But 4 me the book bogs down about 100 pgs in, when Theroux starts wandering aimlessly around the Australian Outback -- writing that should have bn vivid & funny drags instead. I've already 4gotten parts of this section. Paul hangs around 4 pgs w/ Aboriginies & beachcombers & I had 2 put the book down 4 awhile -- for 8 months, as it turned out.
But then it gets better. Theroux takes his kayak & heads north 2 New Guinea, then east thru the Solomons, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, the ghostly Marquesas, on 2 creepy Easter Island, & then finally 2 paradise in Hawaii.
Tho the Hawaii section may simply reinforce the visions of that island paradise we've all seen, Theroux's other stops R eye-openers. Each island is diffrent, each 1 stranger & more beautiful than the last -- even Easter Island with its ghostly rock faces -- & the people R an almost constant mystery. Dspite visiting some 60 islands in his journey, Theroux only gets hassled by natives a few times. The rest of the time he lives a life a lot of us might envy -- camping on the beach, paddling thru scenic gorgeousness, living cheaply, paddling on 2 a new destination when he gets bored.
There R some suprises. Theroux has always bn 1 4 including all the delays in his travels -- where he got hung-up & why, which bureaucracies gave him trouble, etc. In this book it's clear he would never have made it across the Pacific without catching a plane or 2 -- Easter Island's 2,300 miles from NEwhere -- but he hardly ever mentions this. Also, at the end it's unclear how a travel writer trying 2 live cheaply can afford 2 stay in a $2,500/day luxury bungalow on Hawaii's Big Island. But mayB he thot we didn't need 2 know that much about him.
In all of Theroux's previous travel books I've read, the final sections R always a kind of homecoming -- clearly that's the place the traveler has bn heading all along. It happens here 2, as Theroux Nded up spending at least 6 yrs in Hawaii.
This is a long book (530 pgs), but it's worth the trip -- & as w/ writers like John McPhee & Tim Cahill, you will SEE the places Theroux's bn -- U'll sweat in the hot ocean sun, U'll squint as the sun reflects blindingly off the water, U'll feel the waves splash around U, U'll see the ocean of stars overhead at nite, U'll see those wind-carved rock spires that line Kauai's Na Pali Coast 4 miles. It's like watching a really good nature video. Since most of us Rn't gonna C this stuff in Real Life, this book's the next best thing.
My fave Thoreaux book is still A KINGDOM BY THE SEA, about his walk around the British Isles, which I've read 2wice. It is, as is all his work, vivid & hilarious. But OCEANIA has all that & a really happy Nding. If U're a fan of the South Seas, sailing, island life, check it out.
As 4 me, I think I might go back & C what I missed in that Australian section when I fell asleep. He said he was gonna go visit Ayers Rock, & I don't remember that happening AT ALL....

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