Around the world in 15 years

FRESH AIR FIEND By Paul Theroux Houghton Mifflin 466 pp., $27

Paul Theroux is the author of nine travel books. In "The Pillars of Hercules," he journeys from one side of the Straits of Gibraltar to the other, the long way around the Mediterranean; in "Kingdom by the Sea," a favorite of mine, he describes a shorter but slower trek, circling Britain, absorbing then conveying in painterly language the sights and sounds of the English seaside, the smell of dank cottages, the taste of fish 'n' chips.

Theroux is also known for his novels, many of which also readily fall under the rubric of "Travel Writing." Some of them are based in Africa, some in Asia. Some, like "The Mosquito Coast," are set in Latin America, others in Britain and the United States.

He has also published two collections of his travel writings: "Sunrise with Seamonsters" and the just released "Fresh Air Fiend." Both consist of edited versions of earlier pieces, excerpts from his travel books, and detailed remarks about special places, many revealing Theroux's passions and peeves.

"Being a Stranger," the introduction to the new book, is about root causes, why and how Theroux became an inveterate wanderer and consummate wordsmith. "I was an outsider before I was a traveler; I was a traveler before I was a writer; I think one led to the other." The second essay, "Memory and Creation," offers a thoughtful reflection on the writer's craft.

Few of the other selections - there are more than 50 - are so self-consciously analytical. They are more straightforward, more snapshots than full portraits. Although somewhat uneven, perhaps because they were originally written for different audiences, almost every piece in the collection is informative, insightful, and evocative. They have the kind of unvarnished frankness that has long evoked the accusation by some critics that Theroux is an ethnocentric and grumpy expatriate who revels in writing about "Unspeakable Rituals and Outlandish Beliefs" (the title of one of the most interesting if controversial essays in the new book).

Theroux denies the charge. "I have a sunny disposition and am not naturally a grouch," he says. Whether he is or not, he is a remarkably perceptive ethnographer, an intuitive if not too judicious sociologist, and a fine reporter. He knows those he writes about. Sometimes he seems to know them better than they know themselves. This includes the people he met during his long stints living and working in Malawi (which was Nyasaland when he first went there as an unlikely Peace Corpsman), and Singapore (where, for a time, he worked for the US Information Agency), and in England (where he stayed for almost two decades), and on much shorter trips to other foreign climes.

In story after story in "Fresh Air Fiend," we get to see what he saw, to feel what he felt, and, if we've been there, to compare notes.

Here Theroux's fans and fellow travelers have a chance to revisit many places he has written about before. I especially enjoyed being with him back in my wife's hometown of Amsterdam, and in London, and in Malawi (where I never lived but from which I was once expelled by the Life President, Dr. Hastings Banda, a nemesis of Theroux's). It is exciting to go vicariously with him to the woods of Maine in wintertime and to the endless summerlands of Maui and Molokai and other islands of the South Pacific; to be his invisible partner paddling solo from Falmouth to Nantucket, crossing fierce currents and over hidden shoals that did in great whaling vessels in the old days and the QE2 more recently; to read again about his perceptions of China, warts and all.

Some of the most interesting sections in the book are Theroux's all too brief but intriguing takes on such writers as Daniel Defoe, Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Conrad, V.S. Prichett, William Simpson, and Bruce Chatwin, all of whom shared his fascination with other peoples and other places.

For those who like to read books, even anthologies, from cover to cover instead of sampling, "Fresh Air Fiend" has a somewhat unsettling staccato quality as the author abruptly moves from place to place, from topic to topic and, more annoyingly, eschews any chronological order. But for those who like to pick and choose, this book will only whet the appetite for another lengthy adventure with one of America's most engaging travel writers.

*Peter I. Rose teaches sociology at Smith College. The Swallow Press will soon publish 'Without Reservations,' a book of his travel essays.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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