In his previous book of fiction, The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro, Paul Theroux dripped a great deal of ink over sex. Not just on life and relationships, but on human bumps and whistles, earthy descriptions of bodies, juice, and soil. It’s a subject dear to him, as he reminds us in his uneven new novel, Blinding Light: “He reflected that the rarest thing in books or movies, in which decapitation and rape and outrage were commonplace, was the simple joyous act of two lovers fucking.” Just so. And it explains why America has an incomparable pornography industry. But it’s not why people read Paul Theroux.
The plot of Blinding Light follows one Slade Steadman, a famous writer slouching into his autumn years. As a young man, Steadman published a hugely popular travel memoir before settling into a long, comfortable writer’s block on Martha’s Vineyard. Determined to recapture his literary mojo, Steadman and his estranged girlfriend, Ava, go to the Amazon jungle to drink a homebrewed hallucinogen that causes both blindness and uncanny perceptiveness, even prescience. So far, so Sophocles, and there are plenty of the opulent descriptions that are Theroux’s specialty (“fingers of boiled pinkness pointed from a pendant vine”) while Steadman’s fellow drug tourists—a pack of ugly Americans who’ve slithered up from the Fox News demographic—are very funny indeed. “Steadman could see their reluctance in the way their dusty shorts were pinched between their bobbing buttocks.”
The drug puts the lead back in our hero’s pencil, and what follows is Blinding Light’s distended midsection, a tally of Steadman’s erotic memories and reenactments as he writes his magnum opus: a sexual history of himself. “The book’s subjects were blindness and lust, offering no moral, nothing except the peculiar reality of one man’s road.” A road paved with hand jobs and prom dresses, seemingly. It’s a pity that the book’s strong beginning and ending are bloated by this gassy middle.
But Theroux peppers the saltiness with sharp digressions on writing and Vineyard society, and with a peculiar subplot involving Bill Clinton (who is himself quite blind during the Summer of Monica). Theroux lives part-time on Cape Cod, and he enjoys lacing his prose with names from the loftier pages of the invitation lists. William Styron, Philip Roth, and Alan Dershowitz all make cameos.
In his blindness, Steadman declares that “pure happiness is the fulfillment in middle age of a childhood fantasy.” The drug turns rotten and he sees his error, but by then we’ve had hundreds of pages of Steadman’s sex play, and he’s too WASPish to be good company. Even so, Theroux delights with his prose, while his eye for character remains as wise and unblinking as it was on The Old Patagonian Express.