Freak Show

Sunday, March 4, 2007


Travels in American Subcultures

By Louis Theroux

Da Capo. 266 pp. $24

"In hindsight," Louis Theroux writes in the prologue to this book, "the nineties may have been a kind of golden age for strange beliefs. In that interregnum between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks on the World Trade Center all kinds of bizarre heterodoxies took root: space creatures were abducting humans from Earth, a secret cabal of bankers and industrialists called the Illuminati were running the world; the approaching year 2000 heralded the Second Coming, or the arrival of a fleet of spaceships from a benevolent intergalactic federation."

He is right. I traveled across the United States at much the same time that Theroux was making BBC documentaries about some of the more extreme elements of American society and met several of the same characters. What I question is whether they are of much interest or relevance now.

Theroux -- the British-reared son of the American travel writer Paul Theroux -- calls this book a "reunion tour" in which he seeks out 10 of the people who intrigued him most to see what has become of them. He writes entertainingly, and with moments of great humor and empathy, but I was left asking myself why he bothered. The 9/11 attacks changed everything. America has moved on. His randomly selected subjects now come across merely as the sad flotsam you find in the backwaters of any society. In the 1990s you could argue that they told you something about America, but not anymore.

Richard Butler is dead, and his neo-Nazi Aryan Nations movement is moribund. "Almost Heaven," the self-styled "patriot" community in Idaho that believed Armageddon was imminent, has collapsed, and Mike Cain, a group member Theroux interviewed in 1997, is now a Las Vegas truck driver. Thor Templar, the Lord Commander of the Earth Protectorate who offered defense against alien attacks, appears to have turned his back on that fantasy world and now contends that "our threats are much greater from our politicians than from extraterrestials."

In truth, some of Theroux's subjects were not particularly weird to begin with, and they certainly have not grown more so. Hayley, a prostitute in Nevada, has now found God and works as a stripper and animal sanctuary volunteer. JJ Michaels, a rising star of porn films, has acquired a Ukrainian wife through an online dating agency and lives in a suburb of St. Louis, where she complains of boredom. Ike Turner is still living down charges that he beat his ex-wife, Tina. The snake-oil salesman Marshall Sylver still cons the gullible into believing he can make them millionaires.

This book, according to the publisher, has "already taken England by storm." That is news to me, a Londoner, and I rather hope it is not true. The lack of understanding on this side of the Atlantic of how America has changed since 9/11 is already great. Enough of the freak show, Mr. Theroux. It is time to find a new outlet for your undoubted talents.

-- Martin Fletcher, an associate editor of the Times of London, is the author of "Almost Heaven: Travels Through the Backwoods of America."

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