Theroux, Paul 1941–
Theroux is an American novelist, short story writer, travel writer, poet, and critic. His work often deals with the conflict between romantic idealism and reality, frequently in such exotic settings as Africa, Malaysia, and the Near East. His fiction has been compared to that of Graham Greene for its portrayal of seediness and decay in foreign settings and for its concern with the eternal war in everyone between the saint and the sinner, the savage and the civilized. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
[The Picture Palace] is an entertainment in the best sense…. Theroux knows what he's about, writing lively narrative, controlling the mystery story element of his plot, withholding a significant scene. Maude Coffin Pratt is a famous photographer, an appealing, arrogant, cantankerous old woman and a brilliant creation on Theroux's part. She has become a legend and, though she has spent her life in seeing the major events and most celebrated faces of the century and in sorting out art from fraud and fashion, in her pride Maude has lost sight of her self and come to believe in her own legend. (p. 432)
The main irony of The Picture Palace is that as Maude's legend comes unwound through an exploration of her past, a new force is given to the myth of the great woman photographer in a retrospective show of her work…. (p. 433)
Theroux's imagery of seeing and not seeing is precisely worked out, and the inner plot of incestuous love, deception, youthful tragedy is highly romantic—I feel somewhat too romantic—with its smoldering gothic details, but it serves as a foil to Maude's contemporary cynicism and private disillusion. One of the joys of reading The Picture Palace is listening to Maude Pratt's running commentary on the state of our culture. She gives us a biased, spicy history of modern photography, a no-nonsense account of the snobbish mystique of the Steiglitz studio, a list of the...
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If this sequel—["The Old Patagonian Express"] must be called that—is not so delightful as "The Great Railway Bazaar," the fault is as much geography's as Theroux's. Europe and Asia are a richer venue for this sort of thing than Latin America, which by contrast lacks character, deep literary and historical associations, and variety. For anyone experienced with Europe, it is desperately boring. Squalor in Mexico is identical to squalor in El Salvador; the ghastly Mexican town Papaloapán is too much like the horrible Costa Rican town Limón, 600 miles farther south. Illiteracy here is like illiteracy there. As Theroux proceeds, things do get worse, but not dramatically worse: "Since leaving the United States," he writes, "I had not seen a dog that wasn't lame, or a woman who wasn't carrying something…." He seems aware that his sequel isn't quite up to the original, alluding to poor Jack Kerouac, fat and 50, trying to re-experience "On the Road" by hitchhiking West many years later. "Times had changed. The lugubrious man reached New Jersey; there he stood for hours in the rain, trying to thumb a ride, until at last he gave up and took a bus home."
Paul Theroux does not give up, although often he is brought close to despair. (p. 1)
Like good conversation, a good travel book consists of two kinds of materials: narrative (including dialogue) and comment. Theroux's comments come in the form of little 300-word...
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Like a third-class coach on a rickety railroad, [The Old Patagonian Express] offers fleeting glimpses of scenic beauty, even more fleeting glances into other people's lives and long stretches of discomfort, fatigue and tiresome companions before leaving you, finally, at a cold dark station in South Godforsaken doubting the trip was worth it….
[Theroux] sees scenic splendors as well, but does not dwell long on them. What he does lavish detail on are his discomforts. The crankiness of Railway Bazaar here becomes a continent-long complaint….
The problem is not just that his tone is irritating. It is that he is so firmly convinced his commonplace complaints are of compelling interest. Theroux is certainly capable of writing well about travel. He has, for example, a sure sense of that secret joy of starting a long trip early in the morning, alone, while others begin their daily routine. "The poetry of departures," he calls it….
But Theroux so loses himself in the mechanics of how he got to Patagonia, and the people who irritated him along the way, that there is little room in the book for anything else. And since not very much out of the ordinary happened to him, one's interest flags.
Nor is it much revived by his observations on the people among whom he passes. There are a few sympathetic and enjoyable conversations, mainly about English and American literature, with the blind Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, in Buenos Aires. There are Theroux's comments on the insularity of the Americans in the Panama Canal Zone during the time when controversy over the new treaty was raging. But there is little else to recommend the book.
Patrick Breslin, "The Perils of Paul," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), September 2, 1979, p. 5.
[The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas] is a sequel to the author's superbly entertaining The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia. Longer than its predecessor, and a good deal grimmer, it has fewer comic moments to divert us from the poverty Mr. Theroux everywhere encounters and which, since he speaks Spanish, is not so forgettably anonymous as the Asian distress that figured as little more than dusky scenery in the Railway Bazaar. I suspect that this book was also harder to write, since here Theroux was not inventing a form for a novel experience but uninspiredly following his old literary tracks. It is certainly harder to read. Theroux's prose is as sheerly enjoyable as ever and his insights into individual and social character are as fresh and penetrating, but the vagaries of rail travel in Latin America repeatedly tempt him to ramble from the main line of his narrative, and the book is a bit bloated in consequence. Theroux's padding, however, is always lively and intelligent, so it seems ungrateful to complain. What is it, then, that makes this book difficult, at once less entertaining and more interesting than the Railway Bazaar? It is, I think, the morally ironic contrast between the human misery Theroux observes and his will to make art and money out of rendering it, an irony that is echoed in our will to enjoy ourselves as much as we did on his earlier trip, and damn the disquieting...
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[It] would be silly to pretend that [The Old Patagonian Express] is as fascinating as the author's The Great Railway Bazaar, with its rich rewards in the Middle East, India and Russia.
Still Theroux makes the most of little things: birds the size of a cuckoo in a cuckoo clock, or the sign in a Bogota church warning the devout that pints of holy water may be collected in bottles but never in jugs. But in spite of such attention to detail the author is frequently driven to filling up by telling us about the books he read under dim lights like withered tangerines, or recording non-memorable encounters with stray tourists who happen to cross his path in Death Valley.
Oswell Blakeston, "Mad Dogs and Railwaymen," in Tribune (reprinted by permission of Tribune, London), Vol. 43, No. 40, October 5, 1979, p. 12.
Paul Theroux may be the most irascible traveler since Tobias Smollett. Unfortunately, though, his anger never reaches the manic rage of that entertaining author, but devolves into whine and fret.
Setting out from his home in Medford, Massachusetts, one morning, Theroux begins a train journey that will take him down the length of South America, a continent not known for its kindness to dyspepsia. He finds much to upset him: The other passengers are boring, the food disgusting, and the trains filthy and decrepit…. When he finds a subject of some depth (his visit with Borges in Buenos Aires, the separation of Canal Zone blacks and whites into "gold" and "silver" races, down to the color of their...
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[The Old Patagonian Express] is not primarily a political book; politics just seep in everywhere, as it seems they must in South America. It is chiefly a book about Paul Theroux's determination to travel the length of America by train in the teeth of the opposition mounted by circumstances or by those operating the railway system. There is even a belated goal to this journey, a meeting in Buenos Aires with Jorge Luis Borges. This meeting symbolises the way in which the journey from Boston to Buenos Aires is a return from 'the uninhabited altitudes' of the Andes, to 'a hospitable culture that was explainable and worth the trouble'. It has become, momentarily, a journey to somewhere after all.
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