The Paul Theroux thread (travel books and novels)


Luddite Curmudgeon
Jul 26, 2012
Auckland, NZ
Many moons ago, I read a fair bit of Paul Theroux and occasionally have dipped back into his work over the years. He's very well known for his travel writings of course, but I loved the novels of his that I read and I think he certainly qualifies for inclusion in our 'literary fiction' section. He's now a grand old man of american letters at the age of 77, but still writing with his last novel Mother Land published in 2017.

His books can be broadly broken doen into travel writing (which is excellent) and novels, and in these two categories I have read:

Travel Books
The Great Railway Bazaar (1975)
The Old Patagonian Express (1979)
Riding the Iron Rooster (1988)

I have a copy of Dark Star Safari (2002) on my shelf too, and should read this soon - its a travel book of a train journey through Africa and supposedly very good. I learnt an awful lot about the world reading his travel books - they're hugely educational as well as being highly entertaining. As he traveled on long train journeys he read a lot himself, and tells us about the books he's reading as he goes and this is very interesting. I remember him cracking open Gissing's New Grub Street on the Patagonian Express and being disappointing in it. He visits Borges on that trip too, and I've since seen Borges' house in Buenos Aires on a vacation. Theroux's story of meeting Borges had always stuck with me since and it was interesting to be there myself. I find Theroux's work does stay in the mind and I'm contently reminded of his travels when I travel myself. I think he was an important influence on my own world travel, in fact.

Jungle Lovers (1971)
The Black House (1974)
The Mosquito Coast (1981) - wonderful novel
O-Zone (1986) - science fiction!
Chicago Loop (1990)
Hotel Honolulu (2001)

When I was younger, The Mosquito Coast was among my favourite novels and I read it a few times back in the 1980's I think. It's a terrific book for those who haven't read it. It was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford of course (1986), which was quite faithful to the book if I recall correctly.


Anyone else read much Theroux and like to pass any comment?
In the 1980s I read the collected pieces, Sunrise with Seamonsters (particularly liking the V. S. Naipaul profile)*, and The Mosquito Coast. Aside from that, I remember reading the Borges account that you mention. Theroux might have been, like Boswell in this regard, placed so as to measure himself as inferior to other writers. His book on Naipaul was called something like In Sir Vidia's Shadow and was, as I recall from reviews, apparently largely prompted by being snubbed by him. I've intentionally not read this Theroux, not wanting to have it on my mind when reading Naipaul -- though I imagine it is less painful to read than the biography of VSN authorized by himself, with its repulsive revelations, and which made at least one reviewer doubtful about being able to enjoy some of Naipaul's major works any more. I'm avoiding that one too.

But yeah, I think I'll try one of those early Theroux travel books.

*The way I remember it, in what he wrote here about Naipaul, he was respectful and also amused/shocked by Naipaul's Blimpish remarks, etc. This writing was good-humored, as I recall.
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I liked Railway Bazaar and OPE.
I would recommend his book about travelling in the South Pacific (title eludes me) and Deep South is very interesting, not least for its introspection.
I liked Railway Bazaar and OPE.
I would recommend his book about travelling in the South Pacific (title eludes me) ...
The Happy Isles of Oceana (?)


I've not read this one, but it sounds good.

Riding the Iron Rooster was excellent by the way, but probable of historical interest only now, as China has changed so much since he was there in the 1980's.
Incidentally, I really enjoyed his early novel Jungle Lovers. I read it during my Graham Greene reading phase (about 25-30 years ago), and it certainly has strains of Greene to it, especially its foreign location and misfits. It was apparently banned briefly in Malawi as it was deemed too critical of the regime. I've felt I knew Malawi a little bit ever since reading it - a common occurrence with Theroux books is that I usually feel more educated afterwards, even with his novels.
He's also published a follow-up to The Great Railway Bazaar called Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (published in 2008), in which he re-traces his original route thirty years later, . Fascinating stuff, especially through the countries that were affected by the Vietnamese War in 1975.

Personally, as a Brit, I found his Kingdom by the Sea - A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain a little condescending, especially compared to Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, but it's always interesting reading other nationalities take on your own country. I just wish Theroux wasn't so damn grumpy so much of the time...
Back in the 70s I thought "Saint Jack" was surprisingly good, showing some understanding of the ex-pat community in S.E.Asia. It was made into a film with the same title.
Of course it could have aged. I certainly have.

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