BOOK REVIEW / Club-class gags wrapped in a Pacific package tour: The Happy Isles of Oceania - Paul Theroux: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99

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TRAVEL writing, appropriately enough, encourages latitude. Any kind of stylist can make the trip. While Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin and Norman Lewis are organising a tour of churches, where they hope to try out the native language they've been learning and to work out what the city stands for, the Americans Bill Bryson and P J O'Rourke are slumped in a piazza cafe over a beer, complaining that the local women look like shit and that you can't get decent hamburger, while reading Europe on 30 Gags a Day.

Unusually among travel writers, Paul Theroux would probably choose to spend equal time with each party: a bit of history, architecture and metaphor, followed by a refreshing round of jokes and dollar triumphalism with the boys. The Happy Isles of Oceania, Theroux's account of paddling in a kayak through the Pacific islands, is another of his two-purpose tours. Inside his passport to gravity there is a visa for cheekiness.

But Theroux's other dilemma would be whether to write a novel about the place instead. Unlike most literary wanderers, he has a choice of houses in which to display the knick-knacks he brings back. In his recent writing, there have been increasing signs of the two houses being knocked into one. His fine 1989 novel My Secret History not only has as its hero a novelist / travel writer, but variety and intensity of place are crucial to the book's effects.

Pitching its text in the same uncertain territory, the latest ostensible travel book is, not far below the surface, a study of a successful but disillusioned middle-aged man, separated from his wife, attempting to begin a new life in a strange place. Given a blind reading, as it were, of the beginning of The Happy Isles of Oceania, most readers would take it to be a novel: 'There was no word in English for this hopeless farewell. My wife and I separated on a winter day in London . . .' Although traversing the vast Pacific, which covers a third of the world's surface, the book is equally concerned with the small locality of the writer's soul. Alone with the wildlife of New Zealand, Theroux finds the isolation 'reassuring to the spirit'.

Tearful though his eyes often are, Theroux keeps them open. Like Jan Morris, he has a gift for elegant decoding of a local detail. He spots an Aborigine pressing the button at a pedestrian crossing. 'This nomad was seeking permission to walk,' Theroux writes, in a bright sound-bite on Australian society. In Fiji, he comments sharply on the oddity that a formerly cannibal people now produce hand-carved salad bowls that are highly prized by tourists. Again, history is pulled in on a line. At every stop, Theroux collects hand-carved anecdotes. From Tahiti, he reports that poor healthcare and devotion to sweets rots the locals' teeth. Accordingly, the most loving gift a French Legionnaire can give to his mistress is a set of false teeth. Going away on leave, the soldiers pocket the dentures as insurance against a mistress's infidelity.

Theroux, though, is writing with his teeth in. Despite criticising James Michener for American parochialism in his depiction of the Pacific peoples, he is not himself above judging islanders by Massachusetts rules. One inhabitant of the Trobriands wears 'the dirtiest shirt I have ever seen'; another is dispatched as 'a wild-haired woman in a filthy dress'. A Sydney cab-driver is told off for his 'monotonously sing-song Pakistani accent'. Tongans are 'usually late, unapologetic, envious, abrupt, lazy, mocking, quarrelsome, and peculiarly sadistic to their children'. And, although Theroux is thoughtfully critical of the French for using the region as a nuclear laboratory, he also subjects them to hooligan rudeness: France is 'one of the most self-serving, manipulative, trivial-minded, obnoxious, cynical and corrupting nations on the face of the earth'. Back from metaphorising the monuments with Jan Morris, Theroux is now having a beer with P J O'Rourke.

This anger turns, towards the end of the book, against the form Theroux is employing. Travel writing, he decides, is just something he does with his 'left hand'. Certainly, admirers of his writing will find worrying signs here that his right hand did not entirely care what the other one was doing. There are postcard formulations: 'I found the whole trip round the south end of the happy island extremely pleasant.' And when you learn that an Aboriginal actor 'appeared in the movie Crocodile Dundee, his only other movie effort', you wonder whether a writer of Theroux's ability might not have found a celluloid synonym.

Compared to first-class, five-star Theroux travel writing, the new book is like a package tour on which the rep too often has a hangover and reads flatly from the guidebook ('In 1948 some takahes were found in a remote region of Fiordland. Although protected, the bird faces an uncertain future').

There are some memorable excursions here: the encounter with the King of Tonga will be colonised by anthologies. But I hope Theroux brought back a novel in his luggage.

(Photograph omitted)

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