By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin. 438 pp. $26
What price art? Consider Slade Steadman, hero of Blinding Light, Paul Theroux's fable of exotic risk and reward. Twenty years ago, Steadman's hugely successful travel memoir, "Trespassing," made him rich. But Steadman values fiction, and as a novelist he is thoroughly blocked. Now in remotest Ecuador, he has acquired a goodly supply of a native hallucinogen, a datura vine that, when brewed as a drink, has the power to loose the creative stream. There is one catch: The concoction causes temporary blindness . . . that may become permanent. Should Steadman partake?
In life, such choices are difficult. We favor safety and wholeness -- and with good reason. Handicaps are devastating, and tales of drug-inspired productivity are suspect. But the trade-off Theroux proposes -- inner vision for outer vision -- has cultural resonance. It draws on images of absinthe-drinking poets and the opium-eating Thomas DeQuincey. It conjures up Milton and Homer, blind singers. Within the confines of literature, there is no choice. Steadman must accept the bargain.
Besides, Theroux stacks the deck in favor of the drug and his writer-hero. Beyond restoring contact with the muse, the datura potion confers psychological X-ray vision, youthful acuity of memory and heightened sexual prowess. The brew doesn't work this way for everyone. It is only because Steadman is a true explorer that he responds -- becoming braver and more dedicated to the pursuit of authentic experience. Conveniently, Steadman's girlfriend and traveling companion, Ava, is a skilled physician, a sexual gymnast and a connoisseur of fine writing. She tends to Steadman's health, stimulates his libido and acts as amanuensis while our blind visionary spouts inspired prose.
This overgenerous set-up robs the book of any tension, moral or narrative. But the drug's beneficial effects allow Theroux to indulge in a number of set pieces. Steadman's heightened social awareness helps him bore through the pretenses that taint relationships in a mercantile culture. When Steadman ventures into the jungle, he is accompanied by a band of obnoxious eco-tourists. High on datura, he skewers them handily. Confronting a self-satisfied entrepreneur, Steadman says, "All you've ever done is screw people and play with a stacked deck." This blunt denouement is fun for readers -- we love to see pomposity punctured -- but perhaps not enough to compensate for the hundred pages we have to spend with these lousy travel companions.
Datura's Viagra-like powers also allow for a series of sex scenes, limned in purple prose. ("The blood whipping through his gut and his fingers and his eyes made him jittery with desire.") Happily for Steadman, Ava is one of the 6 percent of women who get genuine pleasure from the skill that made celebrities of Linda Lovelace and Monica Lewinsky. When Ava serves up this statistic, Steadman looks "helplessly at her lipsticked mouth, her damp swollen lips." Happily, our hero gets off a quick one-liner: "So what's in it for me?" The answer, in a broad sense, is inspiration. Ava's "eager flesh was like a torch to bring the foreground into focus and make the wider world visible."
Because datura enhances memory, Steadman also enjoys vivid flashbacks to encounters in his teens with a seductive housewife. Like a remote jungle, the erotic is a zone of trespass: "He had entered a new country that was strange and dark and sinful and pleasurable, full of shadows and delights, and he was here for good, was possessed, was changed, would never return." This description serves also as a flash forward, to the material Steadman dictates to Ava for "The Book of Revelation," his "sexual confession in the form of a novel."
Drugged, Steadman marches from success to inspired success. As readers, we never imagine that he is in peril; he is protected by the special dispensation that authors sometimes reserve for their alter egos. The writing conveys no ironic distance between hero and narrator, no hint that Steadman's judgments differ from Theroux's.
And of course, Theroux's situation has its points of resemblance with Steadman's. True, Theroux is hardly a blocked author -- his 40-odd books span the genres -- but his early travel adventure The Great Railway Bazaar was a breakthrough bestseller that, like Steadman's "Trespassing," "spawned so many imitators it inspired a genre." Theroux might legitimately fear that the first paragraph of his obituary is already set in type. One can imagine him writing against destiny, making the claim with each new book that, like Steadman, he is not a travel writer merely.
What's odd about Blinding Light, taken in this context, is that while the romantic scenes are overwrought, the passages that read like travel memoir are sharp, funny and convincing. Steadman dictates his novel in a rural retreat on Martha's Vineyard. Here, Theroux describes "the tenacious land-poor gentry who actually ran the island, through a network of obscure relationships, support systems, and productive rivalries. . . . An almost Asiatic system of loyalty and dependence, trust and cooperation, got things done, and without it life was impossible in any season." Theroux invites his readers along to a summer house party with famous Vineyard regulars, including Alan Dershowitz, Mike Nichols, William Styron, Walter Cronkite and Vernon Jordan.
The most prominent guest is Bill Clinton in his prime -- August 1997, before news of the Lewinsky affair had emerged: "The president, Steadman saw, needed to be looked at. . . . He had a wonderful please-love-me laugh. . . . He was all calculation. . . . Standing next to him, Steadman felt these vibrations -- that the president needed to keep his secret even more than he needed to be loved for his candor." In part, Blinding Light is a brief for Clinton: A level of sexual trespass can still be understandable, if not always admirable, in men who hunger for the life fully lived.
Theroux captures the book tour, too -- the literary escort who forgets where she's parked her car and the booksellers who have never heard of the author or his work. "You knew Bruce Chatwin, right?" one reader asks Steadman. "He's a fantastic writer, probably my all-time favorite."
In the book's final pages, Theroux makes obeisance to what a teacher of mine called "pharmacological Calvinism," the premise that, when it comes to mind-altering drugs, what goes up must come down with a thud. Steadman is saddled with genuine blindness, the sort with no magical compensatory benefits. But this fragment of plot arc -- will our hero recover? -- is perfunctory. Blinding Light is less a fully realized novel than a collection of prejudices, about politics and passion. It is also an unembarrassed declaration of addiction to the art of writing, a pledge of allegiance to a fickle muse. *
Peter D. Kramer is the author of "Against Depression" and "Listening to Prozac."