I was in Greece for three weeks in 1991, thanks to the Air Force. Doing a very small part to help a base in Athens close, I was surrounded by one of the oldest, most gorgeous countries in the world -- and it was so expensive I couldn't afford to see any of it.
The hotel the AF stuck us in cost $50 per night -- for a TINY room. The most modest dinner in the hotel's dining room was another $50. The cheapest meal I could find close by was the $17 dinner special at the charming dirt-floored taverna down the hill from the hotel: a pork chop, a salad and a Coke -- and all the Greek atmosphere I could absorb. I loved it, but at $17 per meal I was still going to be broke soon.
There was a book stall next to the taverna -- cheap paperbacks imported from England. With costs to take a taxi downtown or a bus around the area so expensive, the only traveling I was going to do was in my head. So I grabbed a copy of Paul Theroux's RIDING THE IRON ROOSTER, about taking a train trip across China.
I got to stick my toes in the Aegean Sea and saw the Parthenon out the window of a bus, but the only other parts of Greece I saw were the dramatic coastline, blinding-white houses, the sheer rocky cliffs and the palm trees. It was like California with Greek road signs.
The rest of the time I was traveling across China on a train. IRON ROOSTER was so vivid and detailed that I went back to the book stall and grabbed two more of Theroux's imports -- a lurid sex-change murder mystery called CHICAGO LOOP (I admit I was attracted by the purple woman on the cover), and a collection of short stories, SINNING WITH ANNIE. I don't remember anything about the stories.
But I had a great time with Theroux's China trip, though I thought it was absurd that I should be reading about China while lounging in Greece.
Later, I picked up Theroux's novels THE MOSQUITO COAST (vivid and fun, and hero Allie Fox is outrageous, but the movie's better) and MY SECRET HISTORY, which is full of brutal, intense relationship problems. It might be his best novel. MY OTHER LIFE features a wish-fulfillment alter-ego hero named "Paul Theroux" and is nearly as intense and successful as SECRET HISTORY.
Theroux's travel writing gets better as he goes on. THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR, his first travel book, seems to me thin compared to his later adventures, though he had a big success with it. THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA is a non-stop joy, as Theroux paddles between Pacific islands in a kayak, dodging headhunters and cannibals.
A month or so back I read two of his travel books in a row -- THE PILLARS OF HERCULES, about a trip around the Mediterranean Sea, and DARK STAR SAFARI, about a trip south across Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. Both painted vivid pictures of the areas he covered. I read HERCULES because I wanted to see what Theroux thought of Greece and Turkey. Theroux loved Turkey, and thought Greece was too touristy and fake -- exactly the opposite of my experience. SAFARI is at its best when Theroux returns to Malawi and Uganda, where he lived as a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher in the late '60s and early '70s. He is shocked to find that things there have gotten worse.
Several of Theroux's other books are well worth trying. THE KINGDOM BY THE SEA is a vivid, sometimes hilarious walk around the coast of the British Isles. FRESH AIR FIEND is mostly a collection of longer travel pieces, with some profiles of memorable friends and excellent reviews of other travel books thrown in. SUNRISE WITH SEAMONSTERS is a collection of shorter pieces and includes some bits of pure gold -- hilarious pieces on going home for his high-school reunion, hanging out with his entire extended family on Cape Cod ... and riding New York City's subways for a week to see how bad they really are. They're pretty bad.
Right now I'm halfway through Theroux's HOTEL HONOLULU, which reads more like a long series of excellent character sketches rather than a novel.
This is all back-story. I just finished reading Theroux's SIR VIDIA'S SHADOW (1999), about his 30-year friendship with Nobel-Prize-winning (but difficult) Indian/Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul. Theroux takes nearly 400 pages to show what an ass Naipaul can be. We catch on much faster.
They met in Africa, when Naipaul was guest writer at a university in Uganda where Theroux taught. Naipaul urged Theroux to keep writing, told him not to downplay anything, told him to always Tell The Truth, whether he's writing a novel, short stories, essays, reviews. Pull no punches. Naipaul eventually introduces Theroux to book-publishers and editors.
Naipaul may be a great writer and a good friend, but he's also an eccentric, overbearing pain in the ass. From the beginning, he's absolutely sure of his own genius and brilliance. He has no time for most people, thinks he's above almost everyone (he calls most people "infies," for inferior). He claims to hate all music. He treats his wife harshly, passes instant sweeping judgements on people, dismisses almost all writers, seems on the surface to be disgusted by women.... And he NEVER PAYS FOR ANYTHING! Even when he invites Theroux out for lunch. He's as outrageous a character as Allie Fox in THE MOSQUITO COAST.
While poor-mouthing, Naipaul travels the world, owns a house and an apartment in England, takes long tours of India, Africa, and the American South. While his wife is dying of cancer, Naipaul spends his time and takes his long trips with another woman. Then, two months after his wife dies, he marries some other woman who's 20 years younger. Long-suffering Pat Naipaul is the saddest person in the book.
Finally their friendship ends at least partly because Naipaul's new wife hates Theroux. And Naipaul just walks away.
Theroux admits he can be a bit of a know-it-all too. Interesting that two such difficult men should have such a long-lasting friendship. But by the end, Theroux is seeing all the flaws in his friend, too.
As with Theroux's travel books, VIDIA is easy to follow, involving, and laugh-out-loud funny. I devoured it in about three days.
It also made me think about writers -- about what I act like when I'm writing, about how I treat people. I don't want to treat people like V.S. Naipaul. About the only way you can get away with that crap is by being a genius.
I don't want to be an "infy," either.