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issue 50: Octber-December 2005

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Blinding Light by Paul Theroux: Houghton Mifflin, 2005

Theroux’s latest, one of the highlights of my summer reading, concerns a writer’s journey on a ‘drug tour’ to the Amazon, hoping for inspiration, which comes, but at a cost.

Slade Steadman is a one-book wonder, having made his fame from a travel book called Trespassing about his youthful journeys through many countries without a passport. A TV series based on the book along with all kinds of Trespassing travel and camping merchandise has made him wealthy. Many years have passed and he still can’t come up with a second book. He needs inspiration. With the encouragement of his girlfriend, Dr. Ava Katsina, he and she set off to the Amazon on what is to be a ‘drug tour.’

As expected, travel-writer Theroux does a marvelous job of recording the trip. Slade and Ava are not, as they hoped, alone on this tour, but rather a part of a group of two wealthy and demanding American couples and a sleazy German journalist, Manfred. It is a trip in which everything is planned outa guide meets them in Ecuador, takes them to a village along the Amazon, and then blindfolds them as he takes them further into the jungle where they will take a ‘healing’ drug. The yuppies have apparently been everywhere, being "collectors of destinations." With money, Slade concludes, one can travel anywhere and experience anything, even climbing Mt Everest. But, of course, they bitch all the way. At first we sympathize with Slade, being saddled with this crew, but his haughty and condescending attitude soon shows him up for being a snob in his own right.

The drug they take makes them nauseous and nothing enlightening comes of it. But Manfred, an ethnobotonist, shows Slade a new mutant drug he has discovered there and, with the help of the local shaman, they both take this one. Nothing happens to Manfred, but Slade has the ultimate experience. He goes apparently blind, but is gifted with a sixth sense, understanding not only the mystical aspects of his surroundings but also the hidden depths of those around him, an ability he uses as a weapon on the group, revealing everyone’s dirty and humiliating little secrets.

Back in the US at his lovely home in Martha’s Vineyard, with plenty of the smuggled drug on hand, Slade begins taking it every morning to get inspiration for his novel, to be called The Book of Revelation, which draws on erotic fantasies. The drug blinds him by day, but he dictates to Ava; at night, when sight returns, evenings are most likely spent engaging in steamy sex, which takes up a sizable middle portion of the book.

Slade’s friends and colleagues all think he has truly gone blind, a ruse he chooses to perpetuate, which makes for some fun, especially at a big shindig on the island which includes such guests such Philip Roth, Walter Cronkite, and a surprise guest whom I don’t dare give away.

Then comes the book’s publication, the critical appraisal, the book tour and the aftermath, which takes all sorts of unexpected turns.

Theroux keeps you turning the pages, wondering what the bloody hell can happen next and not disappointing. Comments on modern-day, non-risk taking travelers, afraid to go anywhere without a driver or guide, are worth the book alone. Then, after the overlong (in my opinion) sex section with constant allusion to the "demon eel," comes a great segment on the creative writing process: the blank page, the need for inspiration (which, of course, actually begins on page one and not coincidentally sees Slade and Ava at the low point of their relationship); then the wave of creativity, like sex in its power, and inevitably the comedown afterwards, the misery of the book tour, the feeling as though it was all a sham, that no one knows the real writer. Excellent stuff. And comparing Slade’s ups and downs with the special mystery guest on Martha’s Vineyard is a wonderfully playful touch.

Though it rankled a bit, I’ll accept the ending as the only way out of the book. My only other hesitation, apart from the too lengthy erotic middle bit, is the voice of an English-born American wife on the Amazon tour, who cannot utter one phrase without a British idiom entering in spend a penny, bloody hell, etc. The overload is irritatingly false, and some of it quite antiquated; if Theroux intended it as such, I fail to see his point.

Bottom line: a fascinating read that plays with the blindness metaphor as relates to the creative/erotic conscious/subconscious; shows up the narcissism and insecurities of the self-involved artist; and tells one hell of a good story. Bally brill! J.A.

© 2005 The Barcelona Review
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issue 50: Octber-December 2005


    Donald Hays: Why He Did It
    Beth Ann Bauman:
    Robert Lopez:
Shall We Run for Our Lives
    Paul Mandelbaum:
Adriane and the Court-Appointed Psychiatrist
    Laura Marney:
And the Winner Is

     picks from back issues
    Jesse Shepard:
First Day She’d Never See
    Cheryl Alu:
Whoever You Want Me To Be


    Scottish writer Laura Marney


    Harry Potter
    answers to last issue’s quiz, Marys in Literature

book reviews

    Blinding Light by Paul Theroux

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