Travel book reviews

GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin, $28.

For fans of Theroux, a new travel book is the equivalent of the next Harry Potter tale.

The much-anticipated title – in stores Sept. 9 – is an account of a journey by rail through Europe and Asia that retraces, as much as possible, the route that inspired “The Great Railway Bazaar,” a book that revolutionized travel writing, became a literary classic and launched the author's career.

Theroux was a cash-starved 32-year-old when he made that first trip, in 1973, from London through Iran, Afghanistan, India, Southeast Asia, Japan, the Soviet Union and back to England.

He was twice as old when he set off in 2005 on a 28,000-mile quest (skirting Iran and Afghanistan this time) to assess what had changed.

The writer, known for grumbling, grumbles often in the new book about the effects of age on his stamina. But even with money in the bank, he doesn't shrink from traveling close to the ground, in much the same manner as when everything he was seeing was fresh and new.

If anything, the years have only sharpened the eye and tongue of an astutely observant and often caustic social critic.

The world (Vietnam and Cambodia aside) is a darker place than it was in the 1970s, at least in his view.

Theroux is appalled by the overpopulation and haphazard industrialization that have transformed many of the places he revisits, and he doesn't shrink from telling it as he sees it. His six-chapter take on India is especially provocative.

It wasn't beggars, poverty, dirt or heat that spurred him to leave:

“What sent me away finally was something simpler, but larger and inescapable. It was the sheer mass of people, the horribly thronged cities, the colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians, the billion-plus, the sight of them, the sense of their desperation and hunger, having to compete with them for space on sidewalks, on roads, everywhere. ... All of them jostling for unending experience of nonconsensual rubbing.”

The beauty of “Ghost Train,” as with his other travel books, lies in this keen knack for shining a literary spotlight into cave-like corners of the world where John Q Tourist would never dare to tread.

The masterful character sketches, vivid descriptions and deeply researched historical references combine to make “Ghost Train” much more than a mere narrative adventure. It qualifies instead as a sobering (and sometimes hilarious) commentary on our world. Janet Fullwood, McClatchy Newspapers