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After Work: A Festival For The Printed Word

…Theroux can be cranky. When he’s hot, he tells the reader. When he’s disgusted at the vagaries of bureaucracy, he lets us know – all in well-crafted prose. Theroux’s work is not about beautiful sunsets, drops of dew and clouds of butterflies. It’s about people and the unforgiving harsh condition of being human…

Dona Gibbs is transported into the Land of Bliss by America’s most famous travel writer, Paul Theroux.

To read more of Dona’s enchanting columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/after_work/

He strode to the podium and dropped a battered leather satchel at the base. He was dressed in black and dark grey. Jacket, shirt, pants – all were the colors of a shadow. It was studied in a casual way of one who doesn’t wish to call attention to himself, one who wants to blend in, an observer of the scene.

This was how Paul Theroux, the famous American travel writer and novelist, took the stage and transfixed his audience at a recent weekend long New Yorker literary festival, an annual event sponsored by the historic magazine.

Theroux told how Richard Henry Dana and Anthony Trollope inspired and influenced his work. He tossed quotes off right and left. Clearly, he loves writing and words.

He’s been talented (and lucky) enough to make a career of his passion. His body of work would fill a couple of bookshelves. His best-known travel work is The Great Railway Bazaar and his best-known novel is Mosquito Coast, which was adapted into a movie starring Harrison Ford.

While Theroux has a cadre of enthusiastic readers, the critics have not been generous with their praise.

“Oh, you’re so negative, you’re such a complainer,” Theroux affected a nasal whine in mimicking his critics.

“But all my books are still in print,” he smiled slyly.

Theroux can be cranky. When he’s hot, he tells the reader. When he’s disgusted at the vagaries of bureaucracy, he lets us know – all in well-crafted prose. Theroux’s work is not about beautiful sunsets, drops of dew and clouds of butterflies. It’s about people and the unforgiving harsh condition of being human.

“I’m the same age as Dick Cheney,” he commented to the audience. Theroux has been traveling and writing since a 60s stint in the Peace Corps. After more than four decades of being a traveler, he asks us “to cut him some slack.”

“Maybe I’m too old to do this?”

The question hung in the air.

Then he got back to the business at hand, discussing his latest book, Ghost Train To The Eastern Star. It’s a “revisitation” work, he explained. He planned to retrace the route of The Great Railway Bazaar. Much has changed since his trip of thirty years ago. The Soviet Union is no more and China is now a global economic giant. The United States was at war with Vietnam. A booming India was unimaginable. He had to reroute his trip. War made it impossible to travel through Iraq or Afghanistan.

‘Revisitation” trips are rare, he pointed out, saying that after Two Years Before the Mast Richard Henry Dana returned, graduated from Harvard and became a successful lawyer. Trollope never returned to the America he had found so fascinating. Graham Greene, Herman Melville, Bruce Chatwin –none had gone back for another look at the locales they so meticulously had drawn.

So what did he discover on his second journey. It comes as no surprise it was a different trip entirely. The times had changed, the countries have changed and most importantly he had changed.

We, the audience, could have predicted that. But then again that’s not why we came.

The New Yorker Festival brings authors, actors, filmmakers, and commentators to the stage. By and large, the moderators let them do whatever they’d like to do. It’s revealing and put a face on people we usually met up with in print or in the theater.

Joyce Carol Oakes, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Sherman Alexie were among the host of people lucky ticket holders had a chance to see in person.

When I say lucky ticket holders, I do mean lucky. One minute after twelve noon, the day tickets went on sale, I was online, credit card in hand, ready to place an order and make a weekend of it. Oh, I ‘d eat my way through Chinatown with Calvin Trillin, I’d enlighten myself at a Class and Race panel discussion, I’d catch Clint Eastwood’s interview. None of that was meant to be. The tickets were scooped up by folks with more nimble fingers than I.

I was disappointed but delighted to get the one ticket I managed to snag. It gave me hope that there was a passionate group of readers out there. I looked around the packed auditorium. Yes, there were a few grey-heads but most were late twenties and thirties. More than a few had made an afternoon date out of it.

Theroux complimented us for being there.” Reading,” he said is a “highly civilized, creative act.”

Note: The New Yorker magazine was founded February 17, 1925. From its inception it’s been known for publishing the work of serious writers and journalists such as Ann Beattie, John Cheever, John Updike and E.B. White to name a few. It’s topical cartoons and covers bring a sophisticated humor to this weekly magazine. According to 2004 circulation figures, there were 996,000 subscribers. This figure is growing by 3 percent a year, the magazine reported. Surprisingly, there are more subscribers in California than in New York.


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