By the end of On the Plain of Snakes (2019) I felt weary and refreshed at the same time, the aftereffects of reading travel chronicles of Theroux’s caliber, like I’d just taken a journey myself. Supplementing the read I spent far too much time roaming on Google Street View (and binging the final season of Netflix’s crime drama Narcos: Mexico).
Theroux seems less snarky than he was years back during his trips to Africa (though he manages to slip in his usual digs at Naipaul). He reports from both sides of the border, driving from the Pacific all the way past Matamoros to Boca Chica State Park, then winding his way down to Mexico City, where he teaches for a spell before heading south again and then eastward into the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
He covers a lot of ground and subject matter in about 450 pages, including police harassment and corruption, his Spanish lessons in Oaxaca and fellow classmates, migrants and asylum seekers born in Mexico and elsewhere, grasshoppers and other food, landscapes, Santa Muerte and Jesús Malverde, the mass kidnapping of students in Iguala in 2014 (among other massacres). Poets and writers, Zapotec muxes, Subcomandante Marcos and the balaclava-clad Zapatistas, the “blighting effect” of NAFTA, and corn, bats, agave and mezcal, and renowned artists (with an interesting chat between the author and Francisco Toledo not long before the painter’s death). He’s warned about dangers lurking around certain corners, but he drives on, relaxing once he’s south of the capital (except on hairpin turns in the hills). He writes about the cartels, but more about the trafficked, the indigent and the indigenous, as well as the risks and hazards of road travel (while avoiding any major problems). He also accomplishes what he set out to do, for himself and for readers, to melt away the stereotypes and see who’s really out there.