cover image On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey

Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-0-544-86647-8

Travel writer Theroux (Deep South) finds a Mexico that’s vibrant but shadowed by violence, corruption, and America in this dark-edged but ultimately hopeful travelogue. Theroux shudders at Mexico’s soulless northern border cities, their touristy downtowns surrounded by grim factory districts and squalid urban sprawl dotted with Walmarts, their newspapers filled with accounts of drug cartel massacres. In Mexico City he gets shaken down for bribes by predatory policemen, whom many Mexicans fear more than the narcotraficantes. Farther south, though, Theroux’s spirits lift in towns that retain their indigenous culture of colorful Day of the Dead festivals, exuberant transgenderism, and close-knit communities—though many locals have moved to the U.S. to find work. (He includes candid conversations with migrants about their travails in America and calls President Trump’s immigration policies “barbaric.”) Finally, Theroux discovers a virtual paradise at a Zapatista Rebel Autonomous Municipality in Chiapas, where there are no “American products or American influence,” and instead “an utter indifference to El Norte.” There, he meets Subcomandante Marcos, a “philosopher-leader” whose “flashing” eyes, “sinuous dialectics,” and poetic denunciations of neoliberalism he admires, as Theroux relays in perhaps the most starry-eyed passages he has ever written. Theroux’s usual excellent mix of vivid reportage—“worshippers crouched on the floor arranging candles... drinking Coca-Cola and ritually burping”—and empathetic rumination is energized by a new spark of political commitment. Armchair travelers will find an astute, familiar guide in Theroux. [em](Oct.) [/em]