The Old Patagonian Express
A good travel book is a rare breed. The writer’s task not only of re-creating a foreign milieu with all its delights and entrapments but also of organizing the journey into a coherent narrative that will entice the adventurous reader is no small venture into an art form with very few finished products in this age. Paul Theroux took on the challenge in his highly successful The Great Railway Bazaar which swept the reader up in a four-month railroad excursion beginning in London and passing through Central Europe, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Malaysia, the Soviet Union, and Japan. With a sense of wonder, wit, and polished perceptions, Theroux made the journey come alive, getting close to diverse peoples and cultures.
With one travel-by-train book successfully completed, Theroux decided that if he were to do another one he should probably stick closer to home and make his quest through the Western Hemisphere, testing his thesis that railroads are really microcosms of the nations they cross. The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas starts from Medford, Massachusetts, where his parents live, and the two-month journey is under way. He catches the train at Wellington Circle just after a blizzard has dumped snow on the area. Passengers board carrying their boxes, bags, and briefcases, on their way to work or shop, whereas Theroux points out he is on his way to Patagonia. He sorts out his thoughts and discusses the nature of a travel book and the purpose it serves for the writer and the reader. Theroux’s narrative is straightforward, gathering its own momentum as the miles are traversed. The train puts him in much-needed closer contact with space and time, as opposed to a plane trip, which warps both. Traveling by plane is in itself an oddity, but on a train, the oddities are the colorful cultural ticks which the traveler is allowed to observe.
Theroux remarks on what is familiar to him around his own area: where cousins live, hillsides, forested pockets seemingly tame because of their familiarity, and houses that are like notches on the landscape measuring a cultural obsession to fill in space. Besides the world that lies beyond the author’s window, he describes the people riding with him: a man who compares the cold to traveling across Siberia only to be corrected by Theroux with the comment that Siberia does not have as much snow, or a girl who takes offense to his pipe-smoking even though there is no sign saying it is prohibited. She is a student of Eastern philosophy. They discuss politics, religion, and eating habits. Theroux’s use of dialogue is extraordinary; he never allows it to run in a direction inappropriate to the present discussion. Amtrak rambles on through Schenectady, Syracuse, and Cleveland and into Chicago, where the author disembarks and takes refuge in a Holiday Inn only to realize that:I was not sure about my tact for exploration, and I had neither a camera nor a sponge bag, but twenty-four hours in the Holiday Inn in wintry Chicago convinced me that the sooner I got to the savage jungle, however dark and bitter, the better.
From Chicago the train takes a turn south through mid-America. Winter’s pressure is obvious. Theroux thinks back to another time in American history...
(The entire section is 1333 words.)