Paul Effing Theroux

It seems crazy to say it in hindsight, but I really did wonder if I might see him. He lives in Hawaii and Cape Cod — makes a point of mentioning it in the little bios that appear under his byline, alongside a series of mugshots-through-the-ages in which the increasingly elderly author tries to convey his deep reservoirs of insight and gravitas down a photographer’s lens. 

He probably takes that Honolulu-Boston flight all the time, I’d thought at some point in the weeks earlier. And then, sitting at the gate in a terminal bathed in sterile ukulele plucking and canned aloha, I looked up and I saw him. 

It had to be him. Starting around the time he’d published his Mexico book, he’d taken to wearing a Stetson-style hat in his author photos. He wore a light brown rawhide vest over a collared shirt and baggy old jeans. He was standing right beside the gate, a bit stocky, looking impatient. 

It’s him, I thought. Has to be.

I pulled up a New Zealand newspaper article on his book about the American South. The accompanying photo shows a tattooed silhouette of a frigate bird on his right hand. I looked up and waited for the real Theroux to turn just so. Sure enough, there it was. 

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My first (and fatal) inclination was to leave him alone. I looked back at my e-reader, now embarrassed by the popular thriller-style science fiction series I’d been sucked into. If he asked, I’d lie and tell him about the last book I’d read instead — a transcribed oral autobiography of an illiterate, early 20th century sharecropper from Alabama. Perhaps he’d read it as part of his research for Deep South.

Shit, what am I doing just sitting here? I had to talk to him. That’s Paul fucking Theroux! He of The Great Railway Bazaar (add it to your list), the guy who took trains from Boston to Patagonia and from London to Tokyo and back. The guy who paddled a goddamn kayak around Oceania for a year. A cantankerous and outdated founder of the modern travel book, a snooty man who exhibits many of the habits of the most insufferable world-weary travelers you tend to meet in hostels — and who was therefore a hero to me when I was in high school and university. The man whose foibles you’ll forgive when, with a single sentence, he’ll build a rickety 1970’s train carriage around you. Outside, with a phrase, you can see and smell and feel — goddamn it you can feel — a Punjabi savannah beyond the window. The humidity and the smell of chapatis and the smell of shit and the pulsing heat and the chatter of a neighbor — it’s all there and he barely has to mention it. I love him as a reader and, as a writer, I inevitably hate him. What did he do in a past life to get to be Paul fucking Theroux? And here he is, right in front of me!

I spent a precious handful of seconds rehearsing what I’d say. Hi there, Mr. Theroux. I just wanted to say thank-you for all the stories, and for the inspiration you’ve given me both as a traveler and a writer. Maybe he’d ask what I’m writing. It wouldn’t matter if he didn’t. 

And then the Hawaiian Airlines people invited their first-class travelers to board the plane, and off he went down the gangway. Bastard’s a travel writer and an author — the brokest subsection of the brokest profession — and he flies first class. Hell yeah. I wondered what he thinks of us, his fellow travelers. 

“ is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing,” he wrote in 2008’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he retraced the Eurasia-spanning train journey described in The Great Railway Bazaar 30 years earlier. “Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet. It was also my experience that one of the worst aspects of traveling with wealthy people, apart from the fact that the rich never listen, is that they constantly groused about the high cost of living — indeed, the rich usually complained of being poor.”

I looked around at the rest of us mortals, still sitting around waiting to be called. Vacationers in respectable khakis, young techies furiously squeezing in a few more minutes of work, overweight couples in matching Cincinnati Bengals jerseys and smug yuppies like me sitting at the edge of the scene. What does the world look like to the guy who traveled overland and independent from Cairo to Cape Town in his 70s? To the north-eastern gringo who can get away with wearing a faintly ridiculous cowboy hat-and-vest combo because he’s Paul fucking Theroux, the author and travel writer whose sentences are so dang magical they can buy two houses at opposite ends of the US — and first-class tickets from one to the other? 

10 hours later, on the tarmac in snowy Boston, I craned my neck to see that Stetson shuffle out of the plane. I hustled through the terminal hoping to catch him at baggage claim. But he was gone. The man knows how to travel, of course. He’d been carrying three different bags, including a leather satchel that, I know, would have contained a handful of impressive books. I longed to know what he was carrying, what it might say about his future works. There was probably at least one Graham Greene in there — I made a note to read more Graham Greene.

So I didn’t get to say g’day and shake his hand, even though trying to shake a stranger’s hand is still a bit of a social faux pas right now. But he was there. I saw the legend. And as I wandered out into the cold, I took him as a good omen.

Postscript: The man himself actually read this. I know because he wrote an email to correct me on his tattoo — I originally said it was a swallow, not a frigate bird. He has it because he spends half his time in Haleiwa. “Home of the iwa — frigate bird,” he wrote. Now I need a good lie-down.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy my recently published book about a year-long cycling journey from Canada to El Salvador. It’s available here.

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