Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Call of the Weird

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures
Written by Louis Theroux
Da Capo Press
Reviewed by Andi

The Call of the Weird is the first book offering from Louis Theroux, son of American travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux. Formerly a writer for the satirical magazine, Spy and host of such celebrated U.K. television programs as Weird Weekends and When Louis Met, Louis Theroux offers a weirdly appealing jaunt through a number of subcultures that most Americans would choose to overlook completely. He shows little fear (or far less than most of us would, I venture) in engaging the likes of prostitutes, porn stars, alien killers, gangsta rappers, cult members, white supremacist folk singers, and even Ike Turner.

Theroux sets off on his journey with a mind to revisit ten of his most memorable “ex interviewees” to see how their beliefs and subcultures might’ve shifted in light of changes in the world at large, or as he writes, “Clinton’s American versus Bush’s America; the nineties and the noughties.” What he finds is nothing short of…well…weird.

In each chapter Theroux begins by setting the scene, recapping his first engagement with the subject at hand, and he always takes some time to analyze the changes (or lack thereof) in the people he’s dealing with. Perhaps the most intriguing and engaging part of the book is Theroux’s willingness to engage with some of the most intimidating or downright odd subcultures one might think of with a terrific amount of humility and humanity. While he might find himself stricken close to speechlessness by some of the tirades or actions his subjects engage in, he also does a damn fine job keeping judgments to a minimum and effectively communicating not only the “weird,” but the seemingly normal in all of us: the fervent anti-Semite’s flying toaster screensaver, the porn star’s happy marriage, Ike Turner’s nostalgia.

In one particularly telling instance Theroux writes:

Jerry’s casual anti-Semitism was routine. Most of the time I ignored it, but I was aware of the unseemliness of having a virulent neo-Nazi as the contact person for my lost computer. I wondered if I could trust him—didn’t the monstrousness of his beliefs suggest a fundamental dishonesty? But I was fairly sure I could rely on Jerry, and found it all the more odd that, for all his hatefulness, Jerry could also be thoughtful and decent.
Theroux’s honest struggle with his personal beliefs in relation to the paradox of hatred and kindness so often present in his interviewees is what makes this book so very difficult to put down. I admired his candor and his bravery very much, and his willingness to present an even-handed account of his subjects in what are often such wildly disagreeable circumstances to the average person, no matter what part of the world he or she hales from.

As he poignantly summarizes:

Though occasionally I’d been rebuffed by my old subjects, or shocked by their beliefs, and though I’d sometimes questioned my own motivations, in general I was more amazed by their willingness to put up with me a second time, and surprised by my affection for them. I’d been moved at times, and irritated, and upset, but the emotions had been real.
I suppose it is this impenetrable sense of reality that is at once unsettling and overwhelmingly attractive about The Call of the Weird, for it is certainly a very fine peek into the taboo and tantalizing in an often wholly unrepresented America.

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