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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

The Old Patagonian Express

About a month ago I stopped at the Denver Public Library’s used book sale and instantly made for the travel section. I didn’t expect to find much more than some old travel guides, but was pleasantly surprised when I started going through the tables covered in books.
I grabbed my fair share of old travel guides, I won’t deny, but I also found a few that I considered gems. One of those books was Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, which was published back in 1979.
Such a book isn’t as difficult to talk about as Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, but it still has already made its mark and found its place in travel literature. Still though, after having just finished the book I picked up on sale for a thrifty dollar, I’d like to say a few words on it.
To start with, Theroux’s writing is excellent. He could write in detail about a cardboard box and make it sound interesting. I admire him for that ability and can’t help but acknowledge what a gift he possesses.
He’s gone on some amazing adventures for which I can’t help but be somewhat jealous. He’s taken rail adventures throughout the world and has seen some amazing things. Many of the places he’s traveled I know I’ll probably only ever read or dream about. It’s quite impressive and something I know I’ll admire as a traveler for a very long time.
Theroux’s writing style just isn’t for me though. I believe he comes off as being arrogant, pompous and unappreciative, especially in The Old Patagonian Express. I wasn’t impressed with his attitude in the three other books of his I’ve read, and this one is no different as he mocks all other travelers, particularly the tourist, as he makes his way from Boston in the U.S. to Esquel, Argentina in Patagonia.
There’s one individual in particular who seems to be the embodiment of the tourist that Theroux seems to so despise: the American Thornberry. Despite giving Theroux shelter in Limon, Costa Rica when it could not be found, an annoying portrait is painted of Thornberry because he may only be a 10-day tourist there to see the sites instead of experiencing travel as Theroux sees fit.
Traveling isn’t just taking a train from one country to another and stopping at the different stations and towns along the way for only a couple of days at a time though. Traveling is less than that and more than that at the same time. It can be a simple trip out the backdoor or it can be a long plane flight or train ride to somewhere else in the world. Travel is different and special for each person and there’s no right or wrong way.
I’m bothered by Theroux’s narrowness in traveling; if his reason for writing his books is to illicit feelings, he has succeeded. He has illicited feelings of digust and contempt from me. While he is an amazing writer, I no longer care to pick up another one of his books. They’re just not pleasant reading for me.
For example, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ending – discussed with Argentine writer Jorge Borgeswhile in Buenos Aires – is a sad reach. I found it to be a poor attempt at backtracking about his intentions and views of others while still remaining negative about where he’s at and how others live and travel:

“But I had known all along that I had no intention of writing about being in a place – that took the skill of a manicurist. I was more interested in the going and the getting there, in the poetry of departures. And I had got here by boarding a subway train filled with Boston commuters, who had left me and the train and had gone to work. I had stayed on, and now I was in San Antonio Oeste in the Patagonian province of Rio Negro. The travel had been a satisfaction; being in this station was a bore.” ~page 383

Theroux though, who paints broad generalizations about places and the people that live there, while only spending a couple of days at most in any one location, forgets that earlier, on page 342, he admitted that, “It is not possible to see everything from a train.” He sure does like to write to the contrary though, as though he knows everything about anything from one simple glimpse from a train platform.

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  1. Travel Books to Read if You’re Not Traveling | Jason's Travels - June 3, 2014

    […] Mention: The Old Patagonia Express by Paul Theroux is a book by one of my least favorite authors on the planet. His ego overcomes me. But […]

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