...[a] fierce and poignant account ... On the Plain of Snakes...reveals how attentively Mr. Theroux listened to the people he met, grasping their plight and admiring their perseverance ... it should shame those among us who would revile people like María, who risk everything in the hope of securing what so many Americans take for granted: comfort, safety and, above all, a better life for their children.
Theroux...writes vividly ... Perhaps a gringo on a road trip will always be an outsider looking in. But this gringo also happens to be a masterly travel writer, with irrepressible curiosity and a keen eye for detail, and as his journey progresses he weaves these fleeting encounters, snapshots of landscapes and snippets of information into a kaleidoscopic and deeply compelling portrait of a complex and many-sided country ... he becomes a diligent collector of their experiences ... The sheer number of these stories in On the Plain of Snakes, overlapping and diverging like the migrant routes themselves, makes the book all the more powerful.
[Theroux's] observations about the autonomous regions governed by Mayan Zapatistas are especially vivid ... Such revelations give this work its value, along with the fact that — as the best-selling author of 51 books — Theroux may have the star power to persuade someone who might not otherwise read a book about Mexico to do so and (the big hope) to care about its people ... Readers who already love Mexico, however, may have trouble making it past the fourth page...That’s right. An author deemed worthy of a gold medal by the Royal Geographical Society feels 'shunned, snubbed, overlooked, taken for granted, belittled, mocked, faintly laughable, stereotypical, no longer interesting, parasitical, invisible to the young' and therefore 'much like the Mexican' because — wait for it! — he had recently turned 76. We speak in literature about books having a 'central conceit,' but this is ridiculous ... And the narcissism doesn’t stop there ... [Theroux] lays out his credentials, dropping the titles of his previous works whenever possible and quoting from them at length ... Equally unnerving is how Theroux attributes his own freedoms to happenstance...Theroux isn’t a beneficiary of luck but of privilege. There is a difference ... And yet, it is poignant when Theroux chides the master artist Francisco Toledo for calling himself old. They are the same age, and Toledo just died in September. Theroux seems worried this is his swan story, and he extracts such life-affirming joy from the road that you hope it keeps unfurling before him and, even more, that the wonderful people he writes about would be so graciously received during their own journeys to El Norte.
Imminently readable, wry, and informative, it is quintessential Theroux ... With awareness that Mexican travelogues previous have trended reductive, shallow, and safe, Theroux avoids easygoing beach days and sunny markets in favor of seeking the multifaceted soul of the nation, so different from state to state that it is almost a world unto itself ... The resultant impression is of a nation both vibrant and determined—at once subject to the whims of neighbors and strong all on its own.
Theroux shows again and again through the personal stories of the people he meets that what they really want is to do honest work, make a little money and go back home ... Theroux started his trip in 2017 and drove more than 2,000 miles across the border between San Ysidro, Calif., and Brownsville. He looped back and forth, not so much proving the supposed porousness of the border, but the ways in which borders can be transcended through simple curiosity and compassion.
Theroux joyfully describes many of his meals. But on a somber note, corruption and lawlessness are crippling ... Tourists headed to Mexico and those interested in the current migrant situation will learn a great deal.
... sprawling, multi-layered ... As we already know, the author is a gifted storyteller, an accessible, easygoing travel guide. But he offers up much to unpack here: His journey is split into five parts, each one taking us deeper into Mexico, and, it often feels, deeper into the past ... Theroux is keenly aware of his privileged status.
The overwhelming question I had when reading On the Plane of Snakes was 'Why does this book exist?' Enjoyable at times, it appears to possess a motivation most meaningful to its author. Most simply, it’s about an older white man seeking to benefit from the charms of a country by interacting with its inhabitants, thereby deriving greater truths. Paul Theroux seems to take pains at times not to be exploitative, and to acknowledge the impossibility of coming away from significant engagement and understanding of another culture in a brief period. Unfortunately, he falls short ... a book with a fair amount of interesting and vivid descriptions of unusual places accessed and portrayed was made far more bitter by the blithe attitude of its author ... I enjoyed learning about a town where they trade straw hats for money, as well as the dignified and lovely-sounding Zapatista hub, Oventic. Certain portraits are playful and evocative. And I appreciate that despite his advanced age, Theroux has continued to take advantage of his privileged existence as a travel writer. I have no doubt that as one ages, the bits and pieces of the world that resonate change. That change seems likely to be universal, although how it plays out is not ... Still, despite Theroux’s insistence of his status as an hombre de juicio, maybe he would have been better off attempting to hold a little less.
Herein the fascinating zigzag of Theroux’s observations. He affords great respect and kindness to the working-class people he meets, humanizing their stories, admiring their struggles and applauding their dignity and pride. In another instant, his comments come across as self-serving ... In an effort to see past the negative stereotypes, he latches on to a no less objectionable one: the good Mexican, humble and resourceful, 'making the best of it' when resisting the pull toward the border or resigned to the improbability of migration due to lack of funds ... Eventually Theroux does manage to distance himself from his initial startling premise that his trip to Mexico had something to do with the fact the he, a 78-year-old white man, identified with the 'despised Mexican, the person always reminded he or she is not welcomed, whom no one ever misses.' He does this by relinquishing the center of the narrative to people who don’t think that about themselves ... For the most part, Theroux’s portraits of Mexican lives are powerful, candid, and multivalent, with a few notable exceptions ... Theroux’s impeccable research and superb descriptive prose make On the Plain of Snakes a trip worth taking.
Theroux, with his impeccable portfolio of literary fiction and travelogues, valiantly ventures further South in a quest to gain a deeper understanding of the Mexican side of this fraught moment between our two countries ... Theroux mines every encounter for its uniquely human story, making friends with erudite and everyday people from those who make mezcal to those who make history. Artfully describing landscapes, he meticulously provides comprehensive historical context at every pueblo, monument, or church, creating a textured portrait of a beleaguered country. This is a personal book, and Theroux does not hesitate to articulate his point of view on a number of topics, allowing for no sacred cows as he unapologetically takes into consideration context, anecdotal evidence, and his on-the-road experiences to arrive at his prescription for improving the Mexican situation.
...like his previous accounts, this journey, narrated in his usual, easygoing, conversational style, includes countless lovely descriptions of Mexico’s landscapes and insights into the country’s history and literature, including Mexican magical realism ... Illuminating, literate, and timely—a must-read for those interested in what’s going on inside Mexico.
...[a] dark-edged but ultimately hopeful travelogue ... perhaps the most starry-eyed passages he has ever written. Theroux’s usual excellent mix of vivid reportage...and empathetic rumination is energized by a new spark of political commitment. Armchair travelers will find an astute, familiar guide in Theroux.