After finishing Rebel Mother Friday, I needed a change of pace. I headed for the South Pacific by starting J. Marten Troost’s Headhunters on My Doorstep. I made it to page 62. So far, I’m disappointed and would give it 6/10.
Several years ago I read Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals, which is about the five years he lived in Kiribati. Sex Lives is the best sort of travel book – a funny, insightful account that shows the reader a world that he or she didn’t even know existed.
Headhunters opens with Troost in a bad place. Before the book began, his wife gave him an ultimatum that he either go to rehab for alcoholism or she would file for divorce. He went to rehab. At the beginning of the book, Troost somewhat-unhappily contemplates his new, sober life as he boards a French freighter heading from Tahiti to the Marquesas. It doesn’t help that the French crew makes the trip a “booze cruise” for the passengers, handing Troost a drink as he boards.
Slow Out of the Gate – with Diversions
So far, Troost has been slow to get the narrative moving. After 60+ pages, he is preparing to leave the freighter and see the Marquesas. The story thus far consists of digressions on the history of south Pacific, European writers’ portrayals of the South Pacific, and – especially – Troost’s newfound sobriety. This material is only fair – not awful, but not especially engaging.
One thing that I remember from The Sex Lives of Cannibals is Troost’s cutting wit. He can be very funny and Headhunters also amuses the reader. He includes the following description of A French passenger on the cargo ship —
“Ca va bien, Maarten?” Edgar had said after we made introductions, as he would every time we encountered each other whether in the dining hall or outside the shower stall. He was seventy-five years old… and his hair tumbled below his neck, Dungeons and Dragons style. I suspected 1974 was a very fone year for Edgar, and he had seen no need to move on. He spoke with a raspy, phlegmatic voice that suggested a pretty serious nicotine habit back in the day. In clogs, he stood approximately four foot ten” (pp. 24-25).
Troost’s writing reminds me a bit of Paul Theroux’s descriptions of people whom he meets on the road – I enjoy the writing, but I’m glad that he wasn’t describing me.
Insights on the Oceans, Island Life, & Politics
Despite my feeling of being let down with Headhunters, there are some nice insights. Troost observes that the better parts of his life have been spent on islands, not on continents. And, while trying to reset his life, the islands draw him back. Since the age of empire ended after World War II, the Pacific Islands have again become backwaters – and the ability to escape life’s pressures there appeals to Troost.
A French merchant sailor on Troost’s ship puts his finger on the Pacific’s appeal – “I came here for six months. It’s now ten years. Tahitian time. So it goes. … Out here, he said, waving toward the immensity of the ocean, you have to forget your identity. We are just people, and there are not very many of us in this part of the South Pacific” (p. 39).
In Headhunters, Troost is much more political than I remember him being in Sex Lives. His politics are the those of the urban liberal –
“Let a nice Mormon like Mitt Romney smoke crack a few times, or shoot dope, or be prescribed Oxys for a recurring injury, and I guarantee you that within a month he’ll be giving blowjobs in an alley to fund his habit. (Okay, maybe a year. He’s got those accounts in the Caymans)” (p. 52).
Obviously, readers will differ in their reactions to this material. It didn’t do a lot for me; Troost said that he wanted to go to the Pacific, in part, to escape life on “the continents.” Likewise, I sought out Headhunters owing in part to fatigue with our dreary national politics. But Troost has a sharp wit, and readers who are looking for political commentary with a left-wing slant probably will enjoy his barbs.
So far, Headhunters is just “pretty good.” The book is short and offers enough to keep me going. But I hope that the narrative gathers momentum once Troost makes it to the Marquesas – fingers crossed.