Though he alternates between fiction and non-fiction, Paul Theroux repeatedly sends himself or his heroes to exotic places. But it wouldn't be accurate to refer to those extended trips as vacations: The loveably cantankerous tone of classic Theroux travel books such as Riding The Iron Rooster and The Old Patagonian Express suggest that such adventures offer the opposite of rest and relaxation, since they remove people from the people and places that make them most comfortable. The early sections of Theroux's indulgent new novel, Blinding Light, capture all too well the feeling of being trapped in tight spaces with a noxious band of fellow tourists whose whining voices are united in an amplified chorus. Theroux without doubt presents his middle-aged author hero as an alter ego, but in the process, he betrays a total lack of generosity to anyone outside himself, while simultaneously living out the exalted fantasy life of a writer.
It doesn't help that the backstory sounds infinitely more fascinating than the story. Twenty years before Blinding Light opens, author Slade Steadman penned his first and only opus, a wildly popular travel guide called Trespassing, which told a slightly embellished account of his journey around the world without a passport. The book became such a bible for would-be outlaw adventurers that it spawned a TV show and a line of trendy clothing and gear, enough to keep Slade living comfortably in a Martha's Vineyard estate forever. But Slade always fancied himself a novelist, and his failure to complete a follow-up has wreaked havoc in his personal life, leading to a breakup with his girlfriend Ava. Still, they agree to go through with their trip to the Ecuadorian jungle, where they and a group of wealthy thrill-seekers are led into a remote village and allowed to sample a hallucinogenic drug. The drug doesn't have much of an impact on Slade and the tourists, but his introduction to the datura plant is a revelation; it gives him a heightened sensitivity that allows him to intuit the thoughts and feelings of everyone around him. Needless to say, these are useful abilities for a writer. The only side effect? It blinds him.
Blinding Light follows Slade's life after datura, as he works feverishly on his novel (modestly titled The Book Of Revelation) and somehow convinces Ava to serve as his caretaker, stenographer, and hot-and-heavy sex slave. Much of the second act consists of Slade and Ava's kinky erotic couplings, which are removed from pornography only in Theroux's embarrassingly florid prose, and certainly not in fantasy scenarios where Ava counts herself among the 6 percent of women who derive pleasure from giving blow-jobs. There's a faint hint of self-deprecation in Theroux's treatment of Slade, whose narcissism is another form of blindness, but not enough to redeem him or Theroux. Like Slade, Theroux can't escape the long shadow of his non-fiction, and Blinding Light makes it easy to wish Trespassing existed.