Book Review: Paul Theroux

The vaunted travel writer Paul Theroux has just released a mammoth new travelogue about Mexico called ON THE PLAIN OF SNAKES. Here is an excerpt of my review for the Washington Post:

….”Minus a few policemen, nearly everyone Theroux meets is friendly and eager to share whatever he needs: directions, dinner, a bed for the night and above all their story, often over mezcal. As he notes, “Mexican hospitality to gringos is in ironic contrast to the present ubiquity of Mexicans who are demonized and fenced in, stamped as undesirable, considered suspect, and unwelcome in America.” No matter that the Oval Office holder has derided them as criminals and rapists: “Mexicans spend very little time railing against the U.S. government, because in their experience, government by its very nature is corrupt, often criminal, and the poor are its victims.” When pressed about President Trump, they mostly shrug, “regarding it as beneath them to comment.”

Such revelations give this work its value, along with the fact that — as the best-selling author of 51 books — Theroux may have the star power to persuade someone who might not otherwise read a book about Mexico to do so and (the big hope) to care about its people.

Readers who already love Mexico, however, may have trouble making it past the fourth page. That is where, upon seeing a withered yucca on the side of the road, Theroux writes: “Like the despised Mexican, the person always reminded he or she is not welcome, whom no one ever misses: I could not be more sympathetic. I am this yucca with crazy hair and a bent back; I am also . . . a shifty migrant. Yo soy tú, I think. I am you.”

That’s right. An author deemed worthy of a gold medal by the Royal Geographical Society feels “shunned, snubbed, overlooked, taken for granted, belittled, mocked, faintly laughable, stereotypical, no longer interesting, parasitical, invisible to the young” and therefore “much like the Mexican” because — wait for it! — he had recently turned 76. We speak in literature about books having a “central conceit,” but this is ridiculous. And the narcissism doesn’t stop there….”

For more, check out the Washington Post online, or drop me a line for the PDF. Saludos!


  1. Loved your Theroux review! You had me at “But Americans’ insatiable hunger for drugs…” it’s all about demand, isn’t it?

    • aroundthebloc

      Great to hear from you, Janet, and YES. Mexico’s tragedy is all about U.S. demand…

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