Fresh Travel to Africa

Dipping in and out of Fresh-air Fiend, you'll be struck by what a good life Paul Theroux has had, and most of it due to his own will and energy. Raised in a large, talkative family in Massachusetts, he often left home in search of personal privacy, and one day decided never to return. His anthology may inspire you to do the same...

Fresh-air Fiend takes us through Theroux's first travel experiences - from the time he lived in Africa as part of a peace corps in his early twenties, to later adventures in America, Africa, the Pacific and China. Many of the shorter stories haven't been published in the UK before and the book also includes the full and now out-of-print text of Sailing Through China - a barking and at times bleak account of his 1980 trip up the Yangtze river with a group of American millionaires.

The anthology weaves a variety of other subjects into the travel theme: there are pieces on Theroux's own and other author's novels; on his obsession with small boats; on travel illness; bizarre customs; and fellow exiles, including his thoughts on an exasperating friend, Bruce Chatwin. Theroux has also included a curious and entertaining piece on heterosexual desire that he wrote for Vogue, though his politics can sometimes be a tad dubious. Apparently, the majority of men "would be delighted if instead of an expensive dress women simply wore a little button on their lapel that read Yes". Ah, I see!

The stories include some interesting insights into Theroux's life and thoughts. He was to travel for over a decade in Africa, Asia and Europe before he wrote his first travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, and he only wrote that because he believed his career in fiction was over. In retrospect, he found it was the best training he could have had: the feeling of disconnection caused by "being away" from home is how he had some of his best ideas for writing.

Theroux is also frank and funny, and UK readers will find a lot to amuse them in his observations. Britain taught him that hardship, far from being "the long vividly difficult road over the Tibetan plateau", is actually "the eighteen years I spent on the South Circular Road, which is almost indescribably depressing". A trip to London in 1993 made him observe "London traits: lowered voices, lateness, pessimism, pallor, a look of fatigue, rumpled clothes, bad haircuts, the stillness of tube passengers". And there's still his tales of rat-urine poisoning in the River Avon, drizzly Catford and the foibles of the BBC?

For anyone new to Theroux, Fresh-air Fiend may be a good place to start - you'll feel like you're being told the truth by one of the few men who hasn't turned dull and bitter in his later years.