Bad Trip? What I Learned from Meeting Paul Theroux

William Fleeson

“The benefit of a bad travel experience is, you can write about it,” Paul Theroux told the crowd. “If you live to tell the tale, you get the last word.”

Theroux is a distinguished American of letters, and through his many books on travel and trains, a legend in the eyes of reading travelers everywhere, including me.

And if “the writer has supreme vanity,” as William Faulkner once contended, Theroux distinguishes himself here as well. He is by many accounts a narcissist, misanthropic, a famous grump who has crafted and shattered relationships and myriad stories about himself. The latter pattern of subterfuge has long swirled around him, like the dust kicked up by his countless train departures, leading critics to wonder just who Theroux is, anyway.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the man the day he came to my hometown of Washington, DC. He would be speaking in a travel industry roadshow. He would share stories, and their morals, of his peripatetic life. A book signing would follow his remarks. Here was a chance to talk with the American emeritus of travel writing—a longtime personal hero!

I had writerly aspirations of my own and a now-or-never compulsion to make the opportunity count. I printed a few samples of my work, my name and email address stretched hopefully, vulnerably, across each first page.

The event began on a blustery morning in end-of-winter Washington, as the world-altering effects of coronavirus were only beginning to dawn on travelers (and victims) worldwide. After a metro ride, check-in, and the obligatory sticky wristband, I descended the escalator to the conference floor.

The scene confirmed a truism about travel enthusiasts: they were not the cool kids in high school. Oddness and awkwardness reigned. A large crowd watched a demo on how to best pack toiletries. Photography nerds talked shop at the Kodak booth. A Chinese company offered package tours, its attendants’ thick accents even less clear from behind anti-coronavirus masks. These were the types of characters Theroux has lampooned in his own reporting. The Switzerland booth gave out tiny packets of cheese.

Theroux’s own travels began in the early 1960s, when he served in Africa in the Peace Corps, before staying on to work as a writer-teacher. He moonlit in journalism, as a stringer for Time-Life, and ground out Africa-based novels. Theroux later moved his family to Singapore, where he wrote Asia-based novels, and eventually to England. His 1975 breakout train chronicle, The Great Railway Bazaar, in which he describes a four-month odyssey from London to Japan and back, reinvigorated a moribund book genre more associated with Victorian Britain than the seventies’ morality-busting experimentations. Theroux’s travel-writing overhaul, by turns called “cranky” and “dyspeptic,” made use of open criticism of places and people by name. It was an early sign of his unflinching readiness to air the dirty laundry of others and himself over a lifetime in print. Theroux’s travel writing has helped to define, at a popular level, the globalization of the late 20th-century.

And it is significant that Theroux is American. The global ascent of the United States, with the optimism of the Roosevelt-Kennedy hybrid—and in seeming lockstep with Theroux’s own lifetime—incubated his mindset of wanderlust. It was opportunities such as the Peace Corps that fueled and shaped Theroux’s growth as an artist. As a then-untraveled American, the young man had no other point of reference against which to compare his later years living in Africa, Asia, and the increasingly global village called London. “I left [home] and kept going,” he writes of his youth in his 2018 book Figures in a Landscape. The experiences he would gather, and the sense he would make of them on the written page, had a common American starting point.

Theroux’s family make-up may have predisposed him to awareness and curiosity about the broader world. His salesman father, with strong French-Canadian roots, made suburban Boston home. The Therouxs lived life somewhere near the middle of the middle class. The writer's mother, of Italian-Catholic background, was ambitious, by her son’s description, in the American-immigrant vein. Simultaneously, the Theroux family was perhaps the source of the child Paul’s itch to venture out, to break from the conformity of 1950s American life. “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” Theroux has written. The author himself draws a short, thick line between his compulsion to travel and the urge to take leave from his closest kin—a pre-viral kind of social distance. “One of the great things about travel is, it gets you away from your family,” Theroux asserted back in Washington.

Before his speaking time, the conference offered its own curiosities. It was a marketplace of travel ideas, a souk crammed with inspiration for one’s next journey—abroad or perhaps, given coronavirus, closer to what and where the attendees call home. In the “Discover America” section, the Delaware state park service passed out fridge magnets from the window of an Airstream—the silver-bullet cabin on wheels, now in surging demand as a virus-beating travel alternative. A hundred feet away, the West Virginia park service handed out its own magnets from its own Airstream.

I nearly missed Theroux, who was sitting in a camp chair among the West Virginians, alone and doing nothing an hour before his speaking time.

“Mr. Theroux!” I called. My over-eager tone surprised us both. He stood and said hello, offering a fist bump in lieu of a handshake, his own virus precaution.

I told him the books of his I’d read, several of them borrowed from my father’s bookshelf (and never returned). The first was Riding the Iron Rooster, published in 1988 after Theroux spent a year crisscrossing China by train. I mentioned my pint-sized travel writing accomplishments. He asked me where I'd traveled recently and what I did for a living. When I disclosed my non-writerly day job, he looked at the floor, the light of interest gone from his eyes. I asked if I could give him my writing samples or if I should keep them until the book signing later. He blinked and said simply, “Later.”

Theroux was for many years an Asianist. In addition to Singapore and China, he has written long and well about Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Turkmenistan. He witnessed American fighting in Vietnam. His work on Asia makes more sense when seen as a variation on the theme of Anglophone travel narratives from the previous three centuries—a canon Theroux knows intimately, given his encyclopedic references to them throughout his own œuvre. In this way, The Great Railway Bazaar is a kind of grand tour in the British-aristocratic mold. But instead of canvassing Europe, Theroux turned the notion sideways. The ground he chose to cover was through India, Thailand, Japan, eastern Russia—a concept journey both Asian and contemporary. Theroux showed his readers the possibilities of a grand tour-style trip through what the westerner calls east. He wrote and traveled at a time when many Americans were not long familiar with the place of Vietnam, or Laos or Cambodia or the other active theaters of US combat, on the world atlas. All of this preceded Asia’s meteoric rise, especially that of China, to undreamt levels of social, economic, and geopolitical opportunity. If the 21st century is to be the ‘Asian Century,’ as the preceding one was deeply American, then Theroux—the globalist from Boston—bore witness to Asia’s earliest green shoots as they strained toward the sunshine of international primacy.

When the author's time to speak finally came, I squeezed into one of the few remaining seats of about four hundred, among actual and armchair travelers. Many listeners were clearly Paul Theroux disciples, their hardcover editions already out for the signing.

The author read from typed notes, but any pretense of organization vanished in the first minute. With his opening anecdote, he cast himself in the familiar role of writerly voyeur. He described his mesmerism that morning at his hotel breakfast, watching a child with a smartphone—or “smahtphown” in Theroux’s old-New-England cadence.

“Can you imagine? So much information, so easily had!”

This is a drum Theroux has beaten for twenty or thirty years—since the advent of the internet at least. In Fresh Air Fiend, a collection of travel stories published between 1985 and the year 2000, the writer makes a trademark curmudgeonly claim: “'Connected' is the triumphant cry these days. Connection has made people arrogant, impatient, hasty and presumptuous... I found out much more about the world and myself by being unconnected.” In Washington, Theroux contrasted the idea of connectedness with the years he spent in Africa. Information came at a premium there, when it came at all. Africa and other places he visited back then—Afghanistan, Iran—posed real dangers to solo travelers like him. Theroux had lived to tell and write the stories.

One tale divulged his experience as a traveler, and as a sex-tourism client, in what is now Malawi. “She likes you!” the pimp encouraged a twenty-something Theroux before the lady associate led the American to a more private place.

“And we’ll draw a veil over that,” Theroux said, to the packed audience, after a level of candor that tore any supposed veil to shreds. He described the paid-sex episode in detail through his story “Trespass,” first published in 2003. The writer claimed the experience profoundly shaped his views on the developing world, germinating several stories and an early novel. Such behavior could hardly be called ethical—not least for a humanitarian aid worker, taking pleasure, or taking advantage, in a poor faraway place. The moral of “Trespass,” if there is one, seems made of the cynicism and What-can-you-do? that Theroux has used in his work ever since.

“The worst thing that can happen to a traveler,” Theroux said a while later, “is to be held at gunpoint.” The experience had befallen him three times. (Dying, apparently, does not top his worst-travel-outcomes list.)

As his talk muddled on, Theroux expounded on his other values of travel and other putative morals of his stories. Honesty was a matter of convenience, more than principle. He described his moment in Herat, Afghanistan, in the early 1970s, when a pushy pawn broker demanded a trade for the luxury watch off Theroux’s wrist. The broker offered an antique rifle in exchange. He kept the gun pointed, for persuasion’s sake, at Theroux’s chest. The writer stalled, fighting panic, before ingenuity struck.

“But my mother gave me this watch!” Theroux protested. That was not at all true, he quickly told the audience as if to reassure us. Yet the ruse compelled the broker to let Theroux on his way. The example was supposed to show how connecting with locals over a local value—in this case, the assumed Afghan veneration of the mother—was of vital importance to the culturally engaged visitor. It did not seem to matter, at least to Theroux, that the connection was specious, the human bond built on a lie.

Theroux’s other morals, shared as imperatives with a half-charmed, half-dismayed Washington crowd, included several doozies: when bribes are demanded, or simply useful, “Pay up”; when death-threatened, the impossible “Stay calm”; when wanting to meet ordinary locals, as Theroux did while in Arkansas for his 2018 book Deep South, ply them with fast food and compel them to talk to you. Theroux has written that “Travel had to do with movement and truth... [with] offering yourself to experience and then reporting it.” He has also said, recalling his year on Chinese trains, that “the truth is prophetic, that if you describe precisely what you see... then what you write ought to have lasting value.” Yet the author’s own record testifies to a movement of truth, to a bob-and-weave approach to hard facts, even and especially about himself. Part of Theroux’s challenge for travel-writing fans has been his bald assertions of what the truth was—what it had to be—on a given journey. He condescends to tell you what your truth would have been if only you had been there.

Theroux has shaped my own philosophy of travel more than I realized. Seeing and hearing the man up close brought my fixation into sharper focus. His suggestions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ travel sensibilities ring true today, perhaps because he helped write the book—in fact, dozens of books—on contemporary travel ethics, no matter where you’re from. Long before smartphones and budget flights began to explode borders, Theroux was admonishing his audiences to go it alone, to suspend connections to home, and to slow down. To rest, in other words, while still moving.

Theroux’s remarks ran late. Fans amassed by the signing table. I milled around the floor a half-hour before the line dwindled, and I got in it. The man ahead of me, when he approached Theroux, made a flattering reference to a character in The Great Railway Bazaar—a figure the writer later admitted he made up.

My turn came. “What did you say your name was?” Theroux asked as I pushed his 2005 novel Blinding Light across the table. The story is about, among other things, an aging travel writer. Theroux signed a spidery ‘Best wishes’ and passed the book back.

“Is now a good time to give you my samples?” I asked, with more hopefulness in my voice.

“Oh,” he said, remembering only vaguely, his expression as flat as his tone. “Sure.”

I slid him the folder, said thanks again, and left the building. I took the metro home. My train voyage was far more modest than those Theroux has made—and those that made Theroux.

***

I haven’t heard from the writer, nor did I really expect to. Hope, as I am learning in the writing world, is a much different bird than probability and far more common than the concrete goodwill of someone on Publishing’s Other Side. But I would welcome a surprise email or phone call or a second meeting.

More importantly, I made my own journey and wrote about it after a pilgrimage to the high priest of the modern travel narrative. The setting could have come from a Theroux story—a lone young man on a quest, the American surrounded by foreign faces, in Washington’s own travel bazaar. But if the trappings were exotic, my encounter with the writer, a globalist whose home country I shared, was a firmly American affair.

My trip was hardly dangerous, as some of Theroux’s have been, though it did prove a little disappointing. No matter. I’ll keep traveling. I’ll keep writing. What Paul Theroux said was true, even prophetic, in his self-fulfilling way: I got the last word.


About the Author

William Fleeson is a writer and former business journalist. A native and current inhabitant of Washington, DC, his writing has appeared in National Geographic, Newsweek, The Washington Independent Review of Books, and some really obscure journals. In longform narrative, he was a finalist for the New Millennium Writing Award 2020. www.willfleeson.com