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Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
By: 
Paul Theroux
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A-Ghost Train to the Eastern StarBest-selling author Paul Theroux revolutionized travel literature with the publication of The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), and he has long been praised for his realistic reporting and clear-eyed assessments of the exotic locales he visits. His latest travelogue is a sequel, of sorts.

The Topic: Paul Theroux retraces the epic 28,000-mile, London-to-Tokyo railway odyssey he chronicled in the groundbreaking The Great Railway Bazaar. He catalogues the changes he encounters in landscapes irrevocably altered by war, tyranny, and unrestrained progress, while he charts his own personal transformations during the last three decades. "The decision to return to any early scene in your life is dangerous but irresistible," he notes, "not as a search for lost time but for the grotesquerie of what happened since." From Khmer Rouge torture chambers in Cambodia to brothels in Singapore and bustling call centers in India, Theroux describes the people, cultures, religions, foods, and sex shops he discovers while lamenting "how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost."
Houghton Mifflin. 496 pages. $28. ISBN: 0618418873

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"As in The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux’s skill lies not in mere aesthetic awareness, although each impression, as his train groans into Singapore, or Turkmenistan, is writ large, in a language both florid and erudite. He is a cultural raconteur nonpareil: He sees each city as a refracting lens of the citizenry; each lonely stone outcropping as a manifestation of the people—lonely or headstrong; pious or ‘boasting and booming’ inside." Matthew Shaer

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Thirty-three years after his best-selling The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux is off again (in 2006), this time to retrace his journey in this lavishly detailed, sumptuously shimmering, image-rich travelogue that surprises and delights, stuns and probes as he avoids airports as much as possible in order to take trains. … Snared by Theroux’s tight, evocative, luminous prose, I could ride his trains forever." Sam Coale

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"People looking for the reality of things, including the absurdities of local politics, the stench of corruption and flyspecks on the hotel wallpaper, have long since elevated Theroux into the top rank of clear-eyed literary travelers—right in there with Twain and Tocqueville, Nabokov and Bruce Chatwin. … For all its wit and beauty, there’s a darkness and impenetrable solitude about his writing, but he clearly wants us to go with him, no matter who or what he encounters, whatever the inconvenient truth might be." Bill Gallo

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Of the tens of thousands of armchair travelers who will surely read Ghost Train, few would not be familiar on some level with the places Theroux zips through at a tempo that occasionally invites superficiality, vignettes, and reports amounting to little more than what can be found scribbled on a postcard. … As in his earlier book, Theroux puts the brakes on his relentless momentum long enough to deliver some of his strongest writing and rewarding commentary on his beloved India, particularly when he immerses himself among the ‘frenzied careerists of Mumbai’ and his prose explodes with texture, depth, and wisdom." Bob Shacochis

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At his best, and for long stretches here, this is what Theroux gives the reader: He’s brilliant, giving us sights, sounds and smells of still far-away lands. … The journey hits some potholes, drags a little bit, too, with too much Theroux and not enough of the world." Bill Glauber

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Theroux peeks into plenty of brothels and rejoices in the enduring unspeakability of many of the world’s toilets, but on the whole the book reveals less about the naked reality of the world than the slackened curiosity of the author. … Too often he displays little more than a hurried, irritable interest in the places he visits, especially if they have the nerve to have embraced ‘meretricious modernity.’" Jennifer Schuessler

NY Times Book Review 1 of 5 Stars
"Throughout this book, Theroux is regularly boastful, opportunistic—and breezily generalizing. … Most of these generalizations are intellectually intolerable, some are banalities masquerading as profundities and a few just fail to make sense: ‘A train station is a little democracy in which everyone has a right to exist on the presumption that he or she might be waiting for a train.’" Robert MacFarlane

Critical Summary

Paul Theroux has polarized critics with his latest travelogue. His sense of adventure, candid descriptions, and evocative prose notwithstanding, some critics took issue with the unbridled narcissism suffusing the narrative. Others lavished praise on the best-selling author, and the Los Angeles Times, summarizing the two sides neatly, called Theroux "a compelling writer who is essentially unlikable." Despite this opinion and complaints of unimaginative generalizations and a tendency towards repetition, Theroux immerses readers in the alleys and shadowy corners of squalid cities that many are unlikely to see for themselves. He is a close observer of the unfamiliar and the strange while charting the simultaneous evolution and degeneration of the world itself. "Theroux’s real work is not about travel," reveals the Rocky Mountain News, "it’s about the progress of the soul."

Also by the Author

The Great Railway Bazaar (1975): "More than three decades ago, Mr. Theroux helped kick off the boom in modern travel writing with The Great Railway Bazaar, his entertaining and hugely successful account of a 28,000-mile overland journey through Asia. Theroux’s inimitable and entertaining account of this transcontinental tour is hailed as a classic of the genre.