Sunrise with Seamonsters

Paul Theroux’s travel essays treat places as distant and exotic as Indonesia and Corsica, as familiar as Cape Cod and New York City. All these places, however, are treated as equally alien territory by Theroux, whose ability to wrest hidden significance from the commonplace enriches this collection of fifty essays written in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s. Theroux is intent on revising cliched notions of tourism and on correcting widely held misconceptions about people and places both foreign and domestic.

Theroux writes always as an American expatriate who has never completely left the United States behind. His sense of this country’s affluence and arrogance colors his observations of, among other places, Indonesia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960’s. Yet equally exotic to Theroux is the New York City subway system, which he views through the discriminating eyes of a social anthropologist. The title essay, set in Cape Cod, is an often profound exploration of the instinct that prompts people to leave home and seek distant shores.

The book is not completely dedicated to travel. Before the reader is finished, he is treated to Theroux’s refreshingly original opinions about writers (Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway), politicians (Richard Nixon), and American and British imperialism. SUNRISE WITH SEAMONSTERS is also a book about writing and about the writer’s way of seeing: The essays, arranged in chronological order, allow the reader to chart the development of this multitalented writer.

Anyone interested in comparative cultures, in the art of the essay, or in what it means to be an American living abroad will find these essays both stimulating and entertaining.