By Gal Beckerman
- March 28, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
For five days, Paul Theroux, the famous American travel writer, dined on hard-boiled eggs, microwaved dal and wine.
He had set out cross-country in a rented Jeep Compass on the day before Thanksgiving, driving from Cape Cod, where he has a house, to Los Angeles, where he delivered boxes of his papers to his archives at Huntington Library, and then flying on to Hawaii, his other home.
Theroux said he observed a landscape largely emptied out by the coronavirus pandemic, from deserted motels in Sallisaw, Okla., and Tucumcari, N.M., where he stopped to sleep, to a rest area in Tennessee where he had his solitary Thanksgiving meal, and the In-N-Out Burger in Kingman, Ariz., on his last day on the road. Every night, as is his habit, he wrote out in longhand all he had seen.
“It was like a panning shot of America,” he said in a video interview from the North Shore of Oahu, where he has lived off and on for over 30 years.
Theroux turns 80 in April. For a generation of backpackers now gone gray, the tattered paperback accounts of his treks through China, Africa and South America were a prod to adventure, bibles of inspiration under many a mosquito net. He has a new novel out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April, “Under the Wave at Waimea,” and his best-known book (and his own favorite among them), “The Mosquito Coast,” has been adapted into a television series starring his nephew, Justin Theroux, also set to premiere next month.
If this seems like a moment to take stock of an intrepid life and an almost extreme output of writing, Theroux does not see himself as anywhere near done. Before Covid-19 struck, he had plans to go to central Africa. He is deep into another novel and finishing up a new story collection. He himself can’t seem to keep track of the number of books he has written: “Fifty-something maybe?” (It’s actually 56.)
Travel narratives are his signature, a genre he grabbed onto in the early 1970s out of desperation when, as a young novelist with a few books under his belt, he found himself out of ideas. He decided to traverse part of the world by rail, starting from London, where he was living, through the Middle East and as far as Southeast Asia, returning on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The account that emerged from this tiring journey, “The Great Railway Bazaar,” has sold over 1.5 million copies and inspired shelves upon shelves of books built on similar conceits.
In just the past decade, Theroux has written about driving solo through Mexico (he always travels alone) in “On the Plain of Snakes” (2019); an exploration of some of the poorest regions of his own country in “Deep South” (2015); and a trip to Africa, “The Last Train to Zona Verde” (2013), in which he returned to regions he got to know as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s.
This genre — the outsider arrives and offers an assessment of the foreign — has lost ground over the years to travel memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” that describe journeys of the internal terrain as much as the people encountered and places seen. Theroux, sitting at his desk scattered with artifacts of those trips — tiny Buddhas, the skull of a scrimshawed monkey he was given in Bali, wooden Polynesian weapons — defended his approach.GET THE BOOK REVIEW NEWSLETTER: Be the first to see reviews, news and features in The New York Times Book Review.Sign Up
“It’s more necessary than ever to find the empathetic experience of meeting another person, being in another culture, to smell it, to suffer it, to put up with the hardship and the nuisances of travel, all of that matters,” Theroux said. He quoted the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul, who at various moments in Theroux’s writing career was a mentor and a nemesis: “I believe that the present, accurately seized, foretells the future.”
And Theroux agrees. “You don’t have to make forecasts,” he said. “You just write about the things that you see, the things that you hear, the things that you sense, and when you write that, you’re a prophet.”
But there is no great thirst for prophets these days, particularly of the sort who offer judgments of other cultures. Theroux seems aware of this, or at least of the notion that his way of writing about the world is fading.
His new novel tells the story of Joe Sharkey, an aging North Shore surfer who resembles characters Theroux has gotten to know on the beaches near his home. Sharkey feels acutely that he is being overtaken by younger surfers with big endorsements. For him, surfing was a way of life, an existence centered on catching waves, a commitment to the ocean.
Theroux sees surfing as a metaphor for his own life. All he ever wanted was to be able to write without interruption, without the distraction of car alarms going off outside his window or bills arriving in the mail, without the need to do anything else for money but sit day after day at his desk. In many ways, Theroux has achieved this. But like the surfer past his prime, he is not immune to feeling forgotten, to the sense that the world has become hostile to the pure joy of the waves. There’s a fear of being overlooked, unread.