From the jungles of Ecuador to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Paul Theroux’s new novel titillates with eroticism, intelligence, and wit.
Slade Steadman is the ultimate one-book wonder. His lone opus, published twenty years ago, was a cult classic about his travels through dozens of countries without benefit of passport. With his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend in tow, he sets out for Ecuador’s easternmost jungle in search of a rare hallucinogenic drug and what he hopes will be the cure for his writer’s block.
But his world is altered profoundly when he becomes addicted to the drug and the insights it provides, only to have them desert him, along with his sight. Will he regain his vision? His visions? Or will he forgo the world of his imagining and his ambition? As Theroux leads us toward the answers, he makes fresh magic out of the venerable, intertwined themes of sight and insight. He also offers incisive, sometimes hilarious takes on the manifold ironies of travel and the trappings of the writer’s life — from the fear of the blank page to the unexpected challenges of the book tour.
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Paul Theroux, an internationally acclaimed travel writer, is also the author of over two dozen novels and other non-fiction. He divides his time between Hawaii and Cape Cod.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Wishing to go where you don’t belong is the condition of most people in the world” was the opening sentence of Trespassing. The man with that sentence in his head had turned and lifted his sleep mask to glance back at the passengers who were masked and sleeping in their seats on the glary one- class night flight.
The blindfolded people were strapped down, slumped sideways on their safety straps, with tilted faces and gaping mouths, enclosed by the howl of monologuing jet engines. The man excited his imagination by seeing them as helpless captives or hostages, yet he knew better. Like him, they were tired travelers going south maybe some of them on the same drug tour, but he hoped not. This man slipping back into his seat and readjusting his mask was Slade Steadman, the author of Trespassing.
Travel book” was the usual inadequate way of describing this work, his only published book, but one that had made him famous, and later, for unexpected reasons, very wealthy. He was so famous he would hide himself, so wealthy he would never have to write another word for money. This account of one of the riskiest and most imaginative journeys of the modern era was an obvious stunt remembered as an epic.
The idea could not have been simpler, but his seeing it through to a successful conclusion was another matter; that he had survived to tell the whole story was his achievement. Steadman had traveled through Europe, Asia, and Africa, twenty-eight countries and fifty-odd border crossings, defying authority, for all of it arrests, escapes, illegal entries, dangerous flights, near disasters, river fordings, sneaking over frontiers had been accomplished without a passport. No papers, no visas, no credit cards, no ID at all. Covert Insertions the military term for his mission had been a working title, but squirming at its ambiguity, the publisher had discouraged Steadman from using it.
Not only had he been undocumented during his entire yearlong trip, alone, an alien, struggling against officialdom to keep alive and moving; he had not carried a bag. If it doesn’t fit into my pocket I don’t need it,” he had written, and it was now as well known a line as the one about wishing to go where you don’t belong. Around the World Without a Passport was the subtitle of the book: the plight of a fugitive. It was the way he felt right now, twenty years later, restless in his aisle seat on the flight to Quito with the blindfolded passengers who were trying to sleep. For all of those twenty years he had tried to write a second book.
He had not been surprised to see the young woman snoring in the seat behind him with a recent edition of his book on her lap. Readers of Trespassing and over the years there had been millions often took trips like this, involving distance and a hint of risk. The book had inspired imitations the journey as a stunt though no other writer had matched him in his travel. Even Steadman himself, who now saw Trespassing as something of a fluke, had failed to follow it up with an equally good book or any book in the decades since publication. And that was another reason he was on this plane.
They were two hours into the flight, after a long unscheduled layover in Miami, but the delay had been eased for Steadman by his spotting the woman at his gate reading a copy of Trespassing. It was the edition with the TV series tie-in cover showing the handsome actor who played the twenty- nine-year-old illegal border-crosser. And of course the actor wore a leather jacket. At the time of publication much was made of the fact that Steadman had traveled without luggage, wearing only a leather jacket. He had not realized how this simple expedient of not carrying a bag had made him more of a hero. The bruised and scuffed jacket with its many pockets was part of his identity, but when it became a standard prop in the television show, Steadman stopped wearing a leather jacket.
Watching the woman read his book with rapt attention she did not see him or even glance up and liking her trance-like way of turning the pages, helped pass the time for Steadman. He felt self-conscious at the sight of this old success, but gratified that so many people still read the book, even the ones who were following the reruns of the TV series. He had wondered if the woman reading it would be among the passengers on this Ecuador flight, looking helpless and passive. And of course she was.
In the seat next to Steadman, his girlfriend, Ava Katsina, stirred in her sleep. Seeing her, too, blindfolded like a hostage, he felt a throb of lust. The blood whipping through his gut and his fingers and his eyes made him jittery with desire.
That was welcome. The sexual desire he had once described in starved paragraphs of solitude in Trespassing as akin to cannibal hunger was something he had not tasted for aaaaa long time. Ava, a medical doctor, had said, Are you past it? Do you want me to write you a prescription?” At fifty Steadman was sure he was not past it, but his years of struggling to attempt another book had afflicted him and visited impotence on him too many times for him to believe it was a coincidence. Virility, he thought, was not just an important trait in an imaginative person but was a powerful determiner of creativity. Women writers were no different: the best of them could be lavish lovers, as ramping and reckless as men at least the ones he had known when he had been the same. But those days were gone.
This slackness was another reason he and Ava had decided to split up, and the decision had been made months ago. The trip they had planned as a couple could not be canceled, and so, rather than lose their deposit and forgo the tour, they were traveling together. What looked like commitment, the quiet couple sharing the elbow rest, sitting side by side on this long flight, was their following through on the promise, a favor more than a duty, with no expectation of pleasure. When the trip was over, their relationship was over. The trip itself was a gesture of finality this flight was part of their farewell, something civilized to share before they parted. And here he was, wanting to eat her.
For years Steadman had felt well enough established as a writer to shun rather than seek publicity. Now, he did not in the least resemble the author of Trespassing. That reckless soul was falsely fixed in people’s minds as only a one-book author can be, a brooding one-dimensional pinup in a leather jacket. This man was his book, the narrator of that amazing journey. The book was all that was known. The mentions of him in the press fewer as time passed, dwindling to a handful in recent years described someone he no longer recognized.
Trespassing was still selling, its title a byword for adventure. He had paid his debts with his first profits and then began living well on the paperback rights. The big house up-island on Martha’s Vineyard he had bought with the movie money. The TV series that came later made him wealthy beyond any of his earlier dreams of success. But the author who went under his name was a public fiction, elaborated and improved upon by the movie and the TV shows. The TV host and traveler was now pictured on the book jacket, and that well-known actor was fixed in the public mind and more recognizable than Steadman himself, but possessing the traits Steadman had established in the book. He was elusive, a risk taker, unapproachable, inventive, uncompromising, a free spirit, highly educated, physically strong, something of a Boy Scout, demanding, enigmatic, sexual, full of surprises.
The handsome actor who was identified with the TV dramatization of Steadman’s book often made statements about travel, risk, and heroism even about writing, with enormous confidence, even when Steadman could do almost no writing himself. As a stand-in for the reclusive Steadman, the actor was now and then employed as a motivational speaker, using the challenges of his television experiences making the show most of it was filmed in Mexico as his text. He did so portentously, in the tone of a seasoned traveler, as though he were responsible for the book. And Trespassing had spawned so many imitators it created a genre, inspiring a sort of travel of which this Ecuador trip was typical: a leap in the dark. Before Trespassing there had been travel of this kind but few persuasive books about it. Steadman had made it an accessible narrative, popularized it, given it drama. He had succeeded in making the world seem dangerous and difficult again, full of unpredictable people and narrow escapes, a debauch of experience, as in an earlier age of travel.
The merchandising that came later astonished him. Just the notion of it seemed weird, especially since he had not published any other book. A man he despised at the agency that had promoted it and sold it had said to him: Don’t write anything else, or if you do, make it another Trespassing. Don’t you see what you’ve done? By not writing another book you’ve made yourself into a brand.” After Steadman licensed the name, it was more than a name; it was a logo, a lifestyle, a clothing line that was expressly technical, a range of travel gear, of sunglasses and accessories knives, pens, lighters. The leather jacket had been the first piece of merchandise, and as a signature item it was still selling. The luggage came later. The clothing changed from year to year. The newest line was watches ( timepieces watches’ does not describe them”), some of them very expensive: chronometers for divers, certified for two hundred meters; a model with a built-in altimeter for pilots; many for hikers; one in gold and titanium. The licensed brand was Trespassing Overland Gear. The motto, a lin...
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Book Description VIKING (PENG), 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M014101573X