The New York Times
Blinding Light: A Novelby Paul Theroux
Slade Steadman's lone opus, published twenty years ago, was Trespassing, a cult classic about his travels through dozens of countries without benefit of passport. With his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Ava in tow, Steadman sets out for Ecuador’s jungle in search of a rare hallucinogenic drug and the cure for his writer’s block. Amid a gang of thrill-seeking… See more details below
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Slade Steadman's lone opus, published twenty years ago, was Trespassing, a cult classic about his travels through dozens of countries without benefit of passport. With his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Ava in tow, Steadman sets out for Ecuador’s jungle in search of a rare hallucinogenic drug and the cure for his writer’s block. Amid a gang of thrill-seeking tourists, he finds his drug and his inspiration but is beset with an unnerving side effectperiodic blindness. His world is altered profoundly: Ava stays by his side, he writes an erotic, autobiographical novel with the drug serving as muse, and he returns to stardom.
Steadman becomes addicted to the drug and the insights it provides, only to have them desert him, along with his sight. Will he regain his vision? His visions? Or will he forgo the world of his imagining and his ambition?
As Theroux leads us toward the answers, he makes fresh magic out of the venerable intertwined themes of sight and insight. He also offers incisive, sometimes hilarious takes on the manifold ironies of travel, of trespass and trangession, and of the trappings of the writer’s lifefrom the fear of the blank page to the unexpected challenges of the book tour.
The New York Times
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
Wishing to go where you don’t belong is the condition of most people in the world” was the opening sentence of Trespassing. The man with that sentence in his head had turned and lifted his sleep mask to glance back at the passengers who were masked and sleeping in their seats on the glary one- class night flight.
The blindfolded people were strapped down, slumped sideways on their safety straps, with tilted faces and gaping mouths, enclosed by the howl of monologuing jet engines. The man excited his imagination by seeing them as helpless captives or hostages, yet he knew better. Like him, they were tired travelers going south maybe some of them on the same drug tour, but he hoped not. This man slipping back into his seat and readjusting his mask was Slade Steadman, the author of Trespassing.
“Travel book” was the usual inadequate way of describing this work, his only published book, but one that had made him famous, and later, for unexpected reasons, very wealthy. He was so famous he would hide himself, so wealthy he would never have to write another word for money. This account of one of the riskiest and most imaginative journeys of the modern era was an obvious stunt remembered as an epic.
The idea could not have been simpler, but his seeing it through to a successful conclusion was another matter; that he had survived to tell the whole story was his achievement. Steadman had traveled through Europe, Asia, and Africa, twenty-eight countries and fifty-odd border crossings, defying authority, for all of it arrests, escapes, illegal entries, dangerous flights, near disasters, river fordings, sneaking over frontiers had been accomplished without a passport. No papers, no visas, no credit cards, no ID at all. Covert Insertions the military term for his mission had been a working title, but squirming at its ambiguity, the publisher had discouraged Steadman from using it.
Not only had he been undocumented during his entire yearlong trip, alone, an alien, struggling against officialdom to keep alive and moving; he had not carried a bag. “If it doesn’t fit into my pocket I don’t need it,” he had written, and it was now as well known a line as the one about wishing to go where you don’t belong. Around the World Without a Passport was the subtitle of the book: the plight of a fugitive. It was the way he felt right now, twenty years later, restless in his aisle seat on the flight to Quito with the blindfolded passengers who were trying to sleep. For all of those twenty years he had tried to write a second book.
He had not been surprised to see the young woman snoring in the seat behind him with a recent edition of his book on her lap. Readers of Trespassing and over the years there had been millions often took trips like this, involving distance and a hint of risk. The book had inspired imitations the journey as a stunt though no other writer had matched him in his travel. Even Steadman himself, who now saw Trespassing as something of a fluke, had failed to follow it up with an equally good book or any book in the decades since publication. And that was another reason he was on this plane.
They were two hours into the flight, after a long unscheduled layover in Miami, but the delay had been eased for Steadman by his spotting the woman at his gate reading a copy of Trespassing. It was the edition with the TV series tie-in cover showing the handsome actor who played the twenty- nine-year-old illegal border-crosser. And of course the actor wore a leather jacket. At the time of publication much was made of the fact that Steadman had traveled without luggage, wearing only a leather jacket. He had not realized how this simple expedient of not carrying a bag had made him more of a hero. The bruised and scuffed jacket with its many pockets was part of his identity, but when it became a standard prop in the television show, Steadman stopped wearing a leather jacket.
Watching the woman read his book with rapt attention she did not see him or even glance up and liking her trance-like way of turning the pages, helped pass the time for Steadman. He felt self-conscious at the sight of this old success, but gratified that so many people still read the book, even the ones who were following the reruns of the TV series. He had wondered if the woman reading it would be among the passengers on this Ecuador flight, looking helpless and passive. And of course she was.
In the seat next to Steadman, his girlfriend, Ava Katsina, stirred in her sleep. Seeing her, too, blindfolded like a hostage, he felt a throb of lust. The blood whipping through his gut and his fingers and his eyes made him jittery with desire.
That was welcome. The sexual desire he had once described in starved paragraphs of solitude in Trespassing as akin to cannibal hunger was something he had not tasted for aaaaa long time. Ava, a medical doctor, had said, “Are you past it? Do you want me to write you a prescription?” At fifty Steadman was sure he was not past it, but his years of struggling to attempt another book had afflicted him and visited impotence on him too many times for him to believe it was a coincidence. Virility, he thought, was not just an important trait in an imaginative person but was a powerful determiner of creativity. Women writers were no different: the best of them could be lavish lovers, as ramping and reckless as men at least the ones he had known when he had been the same. But those days were gone.
This slackness was another reason he and Ava had decided to split up, and the decision had been made months ago. The trip they had planned as a couple could not be canceled, and so, rather than lose their deposit and forgo the tour, they were traveling together. What looked like commitment, the quiet couple sharing the elbow rest, sitting side by side on this long flight, was their following through on the promise, a favor more than a duty, with no expectation of pleasure. When the trip was over, their relationship was over. The trip itself was a gesture of finality this flight was part of their farewell, something civilized to share before they parted. And here he was, wanting to eat her.
For years Steadman had felt well enough established as a writer to shun rather than seek publicity. Now, he did not in the least resemble the author of Trespassing. That reckless soul was falsely fixed in people’s minds as only a one-book author can be, a brooding one-dimensional pinup in a leather jacket. This man was his book, the narrator of that amazing journey. The book was all that was known. The mentions of him in the press fewer as time passed, dwindling to a handful in recent years described someone he no longer recognized.
Trespassing was still selling, its title a byword for adventure. He had paid his debts with his first profits and then began living well on the paperback rights. The big house up-island on Martha’s Vineyard he had bought with the movie money. The TV series that came later made him wealthy beyond any of his earlier dreams of success. But the author who went under his name was a public fiction, elaborated and improved upon by the movie and the TV shows. The TV host and traveler was now pictured on the book jacket, and that well-known actor was fixed in the public mind and more recognizable than Steadman himself, but possessing the traits Steadman had established in the book. He was elusive, a risk taker, unapproachable, inventive, uncompromising, a free spirit, highly educated, physically strong, something of a Boy Scout, demanding, enigmatic, sexual, full of surprises.
The handsome actor who was identified with the TV dramatization of Steadman’s book often made statements about travel, risk, and heroism even about writing, with enormous confidence, even when Steadman could do almost no writing himself. As a stand-in for the reclusive Steadman, the actor was now and then employed as a motivational speaker, using the challenges of his television experiences making the show most of it was filmed in Mexico as his text. He did so portentously, in the tone of a seasoned traveler, as though he were responsible for the book. And Trespassing had spawned so many imitators it created a genre, inspiring a sort of travel of which this Ecuador trip was typical: a leap in the dark. Before Trespassing there had been travel of this kind but few persuasive books about it. Steadman had made it an accessible narrative, popularized it, given it drama. He had succeeded in making the world seem dangerous and difficult again, full of unpredictable people and narrow escapes, a debauch of experience, as in an earlier age of travel.
The merchandising that came later astonished him. Just the notion of it seemed weird, especially since he had not published any other book. A man he despised at the agency that had promoted it and sold it had said to him: “Don’t write anything else, or if you do, make it another Trespassing. Don’t you see what you’ve done? By not writing another book you’ve made yourself into a brand.” After Steadman licensed the name, it was more than a name; it was a logo, a lifestyle, a clothing line that was expressly technical, a range of travel gear, of sunglasses and accessories knives, pens, lighters. The leather jacket had been the first piece of merchandise, and as a signature item it was still selling. The luggage came later. The clothing changed from year to year. The newest line was watches (“timepieces ‘watches’ does not describe them”), some of them very expensive: chronometers for divers, certified for two hundred meters; a model with a built-in altimeter for pilots; many for hikers; one in gold and titanium. The licensed brand was Trespassing Overland Gear. The motto, a line from the book, was “Cross borders don’t ask permission.” How popular was all this? He knew a great deal from the revenue, which seemed to him vast and unspendable, but he often wondered what sort of people bought the stuff, because he so seldom went out and he avoided using any of it himself. Now he saw that the clothes on that woman behind him with his book on her lap were from the catalogue; and the man next to her, the others around her, all of them wore travel outfits bearing the TOG logo of a small striding figure in a signature leather jacket.
Merchandising and relicensing the name produced such a large and regular income that Steadman had long since stopped writing for money. He wanted only to produce another book worthy of his first one, but fiction as brave an interior journey as Trespassing had been a global one. He had started writing the book, and spoke of it as work in progress, but for years he had regarded it privately as work in stoppage. What he published now, the occasional magazine articles and opinion pieces, were merely to remind the world that he was still alive, and this reminder was a way of promising another book.
Steadman liked to think he was in the middle of his career. But he knew that for an American writer there is no middle. You were a hot new author and then you were either an old hand or else forgotten. He was somewhere deep in the second half and wishing he were younger. Everything he had gladly done in the early part of his career he now avoided: the readings, the signings, the appearances, the visits to colleges and bookstores, the posed photographs and interviews, the favors to editors, the sideshows at book festivals he refused them all and wanted the opposite, silence, obscurity, and remoteness. His refusals created the impression of snooty contempt; his brusque deflecting ironies were taken to be bad temper. Simply saying no, he was seen as grumpy, uncooperative, a snob. He did not want to convey to these strangers how desperate he was. Having all that merchandising money somehow made it worse.
Rather than agreeing to interviews and public appearances to correct the false impression that readers had of him, he withdrew even further; and in seclusion, without the envious mockery of journalists and profile writers, he began to suspect that he might have written better that he could do better. He was hardly thirty when he wrote Trespassing. The book was full of hasty judgments, but why tidy it now? He was known as a travel writer, but he felt sure that fiction writing was his gift. Because so much of Trespassing had been fiction embroidered incidents, improved-upon dialogue, outright invention he knew he had a great novel in him. There was still time to finish the book that would prove this.
He had started writing it. Ava had praised it; they were lovers then, sharing their lives. In the course of their breakup she told him frankly that she hadn’t liked what he had read to her after all. The novel in progress was a reflection of him: selfish, suffocating, manipulative, pretentious, incomplete, and sexless.
“Writing is your dolly. You just sit around playing with it.” This same woman, listening naked in their bed to him reading part of a chapter, had once said, “It’s genius, Slade.” “You’re probably one of the few writers in America who can afford to treat writing as your dolly.” He protested, ranting like a man in a cage. Instead of consoling him, Ava said, “You are such a fucking diva.” He was demoralized for the moment. He told himself he would be better when she was completely out of his life. He took work for magazines his factual story-chasing journalism had always been resourceful and vivid, even shocking. He said, “I write it with my left hand.” The novel was what mattered to him. Yet what editor ever said, “Write us some fiction”? His struggle to continue his novel wrecked his relationship with Ava.
“You’re just selfish,” they both said.
When their love was gone, replaced by indifference and boredom, a new Ava was revealed or, not a new Ava, but perhaps the essential woman: ambitious, sarcastic, resilient, demanding, predatory, sensual, much funnier and more resourceful than she had been as his lover. Her intelligence made these traits into weapons.
The delay in Miami proved her toughness. In the lounge, seated in the crossfire of intrusive questions and small talk, most of it from nearby passengers, expressing their impatience by gabbling, Steadman kept himself customarily stone-faced and silent, wearing the implacable mask he had fashioned for himself over the years of his withdrawal.
“On a tour?” one of the men said.
He was a big man, as bulky as his own Trespassing duffel bag, in his late thirties. His badly slouching posture made him seem slovenly and arrogant, and his anger gave him an overbearing and elbowing confidence. Steadman had noticed that he demanded more space than anyone else, an extra seat here in the lounge for his briefcase, his arms on both armrests, his bulgy duffel filling the overhead rack. Walking confidently on kicking feet toward the plane, he filled the jetway, pulling his valise on wheels that trapped people behind him, even his wife, who remained talking on a cell phone until the plane took off, and was on it again, urgently, saying, “I’ll send you all the bumf with a packet of swatches.” Steadman took his time, and at last he said, “Are you?” “For want of a better word,” the man said, and looked up, hearing his wife say, “Hack?” A dark scruffy man, bug-eyed and with spiky hair, was arguing with a clerk at the check-in desk, saying in an insistent German accent, “But that is falsch. I am on the list Manfred Steiger. I am American.” Steadman thought: You went away to be alone or, in his and Ava’s case, on a deliberate self-assigned mission and you discovered your traveling companions to be the very people you were hoping to flee, the ones you most disliked. In this case, young overequipped couples rich, handsome, heedless, privileged, undeserving, and profoundly lazy in a special selfish way from this generation of small-minded entrepreneurial emperors. And most of them were dressed in his clothes.
“God, how I loathe these people,” Ava whispered to Steadman.
For one thing, they boasted of hating books and hardly read newspapers. Trespassing didn’t count, because it wasn’t new and was better known from movies and TV Steadman was aware that some of the most obnoxious people seemed to love it for its lawlessness, its self-indulgent rule- breaking, and its tone of boisterous intrusion. I’ve only read one real book in my life yours, such people wrote him. That alone was enough, but it was also an indication that you couldn’t tell them anything. They didn’t listen, they didn’t have to they ran the whole world now. You turned me into a world traveler.
The thing was to shut them down as quickly as possible.
Steadman had learned that, in an interview, if you fell silent and watched and waited instead of answering, people volunteered more detail. In this instance another man, a bystander, offered the detail.
“It’s quote-unquote adventure travel,” that man said.
“Eco-porn,” Ava said. “Eco-chic. Voyeurism must be such a wet dream for you.” That man winced, but the man named Hack said, “We’re traveling together. Didn’t you see our T-shirts?” He unbuttoned his khaki safari shirt, revealing the lettering on his Tshirt: The Gang of Four.
“Until they finish the renovation on our house,” the second man was saying. “We’re reconfiguring the interior of a lovely old Victorian.
We’ve got twelve thousand square feet. It’s on an acre in a lovely part of San Francisco. Sea Cliff? Robin Williams lives nearby, and so do Hack and Janey.” “Marshall Hackler call me Hack,” said the big slouching man, inviting a handshake with his carelessly thrust out arm.
And Janey was apparently the woman on the cell phone. She just flapped her fingers and turned away, but another woman who had been listening she was pretty, bright-eyed, the one holding the paperback of Trespassing, in a bush vest and green trousers, dressed for a safari smiled and said, “Ecuador. A year ago it was Rwanda. We were the last people in there before the Africans massacred the people on that tour. We had the same guide. He was almost killed. No one can go now. We were incredibly lucky.” The woman speaking on the cell phone broke off and said, “We’re whole-hoggers. We want it all.” “Janey’s doing the interior. But we’re reconfiguring the outside, too. Swales. Berms. I’ve got the footprint and the plans with me still working out siting of the lap pool. Downstream we’ll be putting in a guesthouse and sort of meld it with the landscaping.” Hack put his arm around the man and said, “This guy actually wrote a book.” Dismissing this with a boastful smile, the man said, “For my sins,” then took a breath and added, “Anyway, I sold my company and got into hedge funds. This was oh, gosh before the NASDAQ tanked in what? Last April?” Steadman leaned toward him, saying nothing, smiling his obscure smile at the self-conscious “oh, gosh.” “And I got in the high eight figures.” Hack said, “So he said to me, ‘Let’s get jiggy wid it.’ ’Cause he’s an A-player. He’s a well-known author, too.” At the mention of “high eight figures” what was that, tens of millions, right? Ava barked loudly, as though at an outrage, and the woman in the Trespassing vest glanced over her cell phone and said, “Do keep it down. I’m talking.” “Wood worked for two solid years for that payday,” the other woman said, looking up from Steadman’s book. His name was Wood?
Janey, Hack’s wife, was saying in a wiffling English accent into her cell phone, “It seems frightful. But in point of fact, single people spend a disproportionate amount of time in the loo. The laboratory, as you might say.” Both couples were dressed alike, mostly in Trespassing clothes from the catalogue: trousers with zip-off legs that turned them into shorts, shirts with zip-off sleeves, reversible jackets, thick socks, hiking shoes, floppy hats, mesh-lined vests, and fanny packs at their waists.
Seeing them, Steadman wanted to say: I give away ten percent of my pretax profits from catalogue sales to environmental causes. How much do you contribute?
“This has something like seventeen pockets,” the woman with the book said, patting her vest, seeing that Ava was staring at it but Ava was staring at the TOG logo. She slapped it some more. “These gussets are really useful. And check out this placket.” And when Ava’s gaze drifted to the woman’s expensive watch it was the Trespassing Mermaid she said, “It’s a chronometer. Titanium. Certified for like a billion meters. That’s your vacuum-release valve,” and twisted it. “We dive Janey doesn’t but she snorkels.” The woman on the phone turned away at the mention of her name and kept chewing on the phone. “We’re hoping to do some in the Galápagos.” Steadman was so delighted to hear that they were going in the opposite direction he did not tell them that snorkeling there was strictly regulated, but encouraged her instead. The man he took to be her husband was going through the sectioned-off pockets of his own padded vest. He brought out a folded map and his boarding pass and a wallet that looked like a small parcel, with slots for air tickets, dollar bills, and pesos. The wallet, too, was a Trespassing accessory.
“What I love about American money is its tensile strength. It’s the high rag content. Leave a couple of bucks in a bathing suit and never mind. All you have to do is dry it out. It actually stands up to a washer-dryer.” “You mean you can launder it?” Ava said.
Janey, the young woman with the English accent, said “Ta very mooch for now” and “By-yee” and snapped her phone off, and collapsing it, she turned it into a small dark cookie. The other woman reached into another expensive catalogue item, the Trespassing Gourmet Lunch Tote, a padded food satchel with a cooler compartment. She handed her husband a wrapped sandwich.
“We always bring our own,” Hack said, chewing between bites. “It’s smoked turkey with provolone and tomato and an herbed vinaigrette dressing.” Noting that the man said “herbed,” Ava frowned and turned away, and the woman looked up from her book and offered Ava half a sandwich, saying that she had plenty. Ava’s tight smile meant “no thanks.” Tapping the cover of Trespassing, Hack put his arm around the woman and said, “That must be one hell of a read.” The woman said, “It’s awesome.” “Like how?” “Like in its, um, modalities. In its, um, tropes.” “You’ve been reading it for weeks and ignoring me.” “I read real slow when I’m liking something.” “So who wrote it?” Steadman, who had been listening closely, braced himself, putting on his most implacable face.
The woman said, “This, like, you know, legendary has-been. The outdoor- gear freak. He’s more a lifestyle than a writer.” Then, “You guys married?” Hearing “legendary has-been,” Ava shut her eyes and smiled in anger.
As for the question, everything about it, too, was wrong. The “you,” the “guys,” the very word “married.” “I’m Sabra Wilmutt,” the woman said.
“I’m Jonquil J. Christ.” Sabra’s face looked suddenly slapped and lopsided. She said, “I don’t get it.” “The J is for Jesus.” As Ava spoke, the reboarding announcement was made.
What does it matter? Ava’s expression said to Steadman, who had heard it all. But Steadman had been attentive to the woman named Sabra, immersed in Trespassing. It was just this awful flight to get through, and after that they would never see any of them again.
Copyright © 2005 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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