BLINDING LIGHT. By Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin. 438 pages. $26.
Meet Slade Steadman. He's acclaimed author Paul Theroux's sadly intriguing protagonist in a whimsically strange and well-crafted novel called Blinding Light. It's a clever one in which readers could argue that Theroux is exploring the fine lines that separate literary passion, ego gratification, and obsessive behavior in an unorthodox way.
Steadman is an amusing, likeable, pitiful, and mischievous little boy in a 50-year-old writer's body, a has-been all wrapped up into one in his own self-indulgent and conniving personality.
Twenty years earlier, Steadman became famous with his debut book, "Trespassing." It chronicled Steadman's unlikely travels through dozens of countries without a passport, something which today seems all the more improbable in an age of heightened security over terrorism fears.
He faded from the literary limelight, not so much because it was his desire to be a J.D. Salinger-type of recluse, but more because of writer's block and his fear of being unable to come up with something that would be "Trespassing's" equal.
But, like many people who have tasted fame, Steadman is eager to get it back - even if it means going deep into the jungles of Ecuador with a gaggle of thrill-seeking tourists and experimenting with a tea from the mysterious datura root. Steadman gets psychologically hooked on the rare hallucinogenic drug, smuggling back a year's supply because he believes it can make him temporarily blind on command. That, he reasons, will help him, well, see the world in a different way and reinvigorate his writing process. His mindset is locked on a comeback, figuring it is his only hope for regaining his virility, his sense of self-worth, and his career.
Predictably, there are some lessons to be learned from overindulgence in such unpredictable herbs and roots. But the lessons don't come via cliches.
The book has a surprisingly hot sexual energy, especially between Steadman and Ava Katsina. Ava is a beautiful obstetrician and his on-again, off-again love interest who accompanies Steadman to Ecuador, even though the two had already decided to end their relationship. But she finds herself hanging around afterward and being his assistant out of lingering concern and fascination for him, and despite a fair amount of disgust because of his ability to deceive the public on the sight issue. There's even a White House encounter with former President Bill Clinton during his credibility crisis over the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Writer's block certainly doesn't seem to afflict Theroux. Blinding Light is his 26th novel and his 40th book. His work includes The Mosquito Coast, Kowloon Tong, and Hotel Honolulu. Blinding Light is ample evidence that he still has a knack for taking readers on literary mind-benders with his intricate prose.
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