Legendary travel writer Theroux drives the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, then goes deep into the hinterland to uncover the rich, layered world behind today's brutal headlines by visiting Zapotec mill workers in the highlands, attending a Zapatista party meeting, and communing with people of all stripes who remain south of the border even as their families brave the journey north.
...[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.