Book Review: THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS, by Paul Theroux

In 197_, Paul Theroux hopped on a train in Medford, Massachusettes, with an itch to see how far south the train would take him. A few months of tough train travel later, he found himself in Esquel, Patagonia--though obviously, he switched trains often, since no train runs top to bottom on both American continents. The idea was to travel all that distance without ever leaving the ground, since he states several times (and I have to say I agree) that air travel reduces a trip to its destination, rather than allowing it to be a coherent and vivid journey of scenery and experience. Nobody writes about the journey, Theroux protests.

THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS is solely travel--what it took to get from Medford to Esquel by train--and Theroux is the perfect narrator to tell the story. At first I was put off by his blunt, opinionated attitude and the way he manages to offend or ridicule or stoutly disagree with nearly everyone he encounters, but over time it became endearing. He's the sort of guy a like to read about, but am glad I don't know personally.

I haven't the stamina to go into his sassiness now, though. I'm sorry, but the review is being cut short by sleepiness and the new Ian McEwan novel (in paperback!) that is draped alluringly over the arm of my couch. It beckons to me. I must go.

But I will say first that I really enjoyed PATAGONIAN, even if it seemed to drag on at times (scenery, scenery, scenery, brief dialogue, scenery, commentary on poverty/tourism/your issue here), and I very much enjoyed Theroux's criticism of the books he read while travelling. My reading list has pathetically lengethened after reading this book, as I must now add Pudd'nhead Wilson (Twain), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Poe), some Thomas Hardy poems, and the short stories of Kipling.

I will also add that it was an odd experience to be reading about the South America of thirty years ago, as Theroux's biting prose has undoubtedly marked the way I view certain cities and countries, even though they might be politcally, economically and geographically very, very different now.

(This wasn't short at all.)


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