On The Plain Of Snakes by Paul Theroux

On The Plain of Snakes

Along comes Paul Theroux with  a heart-pounding epic journey along the border between Mexico and U.S. It’s not a novel. It’s a tell-all travel documentary written in Theroux’s signature voice. I got so involved that I whipped out a big atlas of Mexico and the border and began to voraciously follow along….sharpie in hand.

Map Mexico-U.S. Border

This book could not be more timely. Surely, I can’t be the only person who’s been wondering about the border, lately. My mind  has pictured areas of crossing both legal and illegal. Immigrants so desperate they are swimming across the Rio Grande sometimes hanging onto the back of another.   Yes, this actually happens daily. And I have spoken to a woman who did just this.

As Theroux drives his personal car across the harsh desert and dangerous roads of Mexico ( and they’re all dangerous) we begin to understand the  potential for disaster around every curve. At one point he was told if  he had chosen to drive a truck it would most certainly have  been stolen. He’s stopped by corrupt government police and officials on every leg of his journey.  Each one extracts  payment for some ridiculous infringement they have cooked up. Non payment is not an option here.  One incident comes to mind where he  encounters a policeman on a motorcycle as he reaches Mexico City.  The policeman  pulled up next to his car and indicated with the fat finger of a leather-gloved hand that he must follow him.  He was lead through heavy traffic  and down a side road, then through a series of slummy streets and finally to the end of a dead-end street.  The policeman approached his car shouting at the top of his voice.  Theroux indicated that his Spanish was poor and asked that the cop speak slowly.  More shouting. The policeman wants to see the papers for the car saying he can take it. It’s illegal to drive this car in Mexico. On and on. Theroux tries to explain that he has the proper permits etc.  By now Theroux is actually afraid. And rightly so. And he writes: ” I have written elsewhere about how I have been frightened in travel, nearly always by someone with a gun–a boy in Malawi, a shifta bandit in the north Kenya desert, and three boys with rusty spears had accosted me in a logoon in the Trocriand Islands, threatening to stab me to death.” Finally, he asked the policeman ,”What do you want?” and that became the game-changer. Money, of course.  Not long after this first encounter, Theroux was again accosted by police for driving down a one-way street. Money was again extracted for the offense. And on and on again and again throughout the  entire adventure. This is a corrupt country.

Theroux gives you a birds-eye view of all that’s hellacious about this often gorgeous but harsh land.  When he teaches a writing class in Mexico City he introduces us to the delicious and unique foods specific to this area.  I enjoyed meeting the intelligent writers in his class. As he walks the streets and uses public transport you feel as if you’re there traveling with him and making new friends as you learn more about the culture and the quirks.

Theroux travels by bus, car, and plane, through the wild wild west of Mexico. Has it always been this way?  Is it more dangerous now than twenty years ago? He even goes so far as to  post about the new four-tier advisory system for travelers to the country.

  • Level 1, Exercise Normal Precautions ( much of Mexico )
  • Level 2, Exercise Increased Caution ( Cancun, Cozumel, Mexico City)
  • Level 3, Reconsider Travel ( Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco )
  • Level 4, DO NOT TRAVEL, ( Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, Taxco )

Theroux goes on to say he knew nothing about this new travel alert until after he returned from his trip. He had been warned repeatedly  to avoid driving in Guerrero state and not to visit Acapulco, warnings he heeded.

Paul Theroux

Reading through these above warnings is daunting. Some of you may remember that I’ve been writing about an upcoming novel called, AMERICAN DIRT, by Jeanine Cummins. It begins in that fine Mexican city of Acapulco. Yes, stay away, my friends!!

I will be talking about ON THE PLAIN OF SNAKES all season long and far into the future.  Get out your atlas and get ready for a wild ride that you will never forget. You need this book.

My review copy was provided by the generous publishing people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in exchange for an honest review.  Absolutely on the top of my list this year!!! Loved it.

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