Paul Theroux’s new novel finds Slade Steadman, the 50-year-old author of a celebrated travel book, on the trail to darkest Ecuador in the company of some deeply unpleasant American tourists and his disillusioned doctor girlfriend Ava. The object of his quest is a rare hallucinogen, shyly administered by the local shaman, with which our man hopes to end his long-standing writer’s block and get his professional life back on track. Equally irksome is a second blockage: ‘The sexual desire he had once described in starved paragraphs of solitude … as something akin to cannibal hunger was something he had not tasted for a long time.’
Whatever else may be said of Paul Theroux’s fiction, he has never run short of good ideas, and Blinding Light positively thrums with Maughamesque narrative bounce. Having sampled, and been unimpressed by, lashings of something called ayahuasca, Hack, Sabra and the other trippers are anxious to head off on the next stage of their South American tour. Steadman, meanwhile, arranges a private cocktail hour with a substance named datura. Four hours of vision-heavy slumber later, he emerges as a kind of blind savant, mercilessly probing the neuroses of his fellow travellers. A year’s supply of this potent new reality-enhancer to hand, he speeds back to his bolt-hole on Martha’s Vineyard with a moistly complaisant Ava and, sexually and imaginatively rejuvenated, starts work on a new project.
Given the focus of Steadman’s obsessions (and, it must be said, those of his creator), one had a shrewd idea what this tidal wave of creative energy might produce and, sure enough, The Book of Revelations — for such is the title of the new work — turns out to be ‘a sexual confession in the form of a novel’. Dictated to his willing amanuensis, this takes in every imaginable bygone erotic frisson, from the clothes-lines sniffed in youth to a teenage encounter with lonesome Mrs Bronster, who ‘canted her body and thrust herself in his fingers’ and much else besides. Meanwhile, his new persona — a hipster version of Borges and Joyce — is being stealthily brought to the public attention. He dines with the president (a pitilessly observed Bill Clinton) and climbs the best-seller list. Then, unexpectedly, the self-regulated drug black-outs are replaced by total blindness.
Even in the balmy days of Saint Jack and The Family Arsenal, Theroux occasionally had trouble in harmonising the two sides of his literary nature: the one engrossed in narrative dynamics, and the one avid to hare off in the direction of what Martin Amis, reviewing one of his mid-career collections, called ‘the compassionate high style’. This souped-up reportage from the jungle suggests that the process still has some way to go:
Someone called out up ahead, a small coughing sound, and then an echo in the person’s sinuses, like a startled animal cooing in recognition, not a person but the incomplete ghost of a person, suggesting faulty magic.
The best bits of Blinding Light — and these are very good indeed — cover the irritations of the Ecuador trip and the finale, in which Steadman finds himself stalked by a German datura-sampler who ‘knows his secret’. The bonking sessions, on the other hand, are almost Wagnerian in their portentousness and will be shortly leaving this desk for the welcoming embrace of the Literary Review Bad Sex award.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 16, 2005