The Call of the Weird

I finished Louis Theroux’s The Call of the Weird last week.  If you’ve heard of Louis Theroux (who incidentally is the son of the legendary travel writer Paul Theroux), it’s probably for his TV series…es… (what’s the plural of “series” – serii?) Weird Weekends or When Louis Met…, both of which focus on the off-beat and the unusual among American counter-cultures and British celebrities.

His style in these shows – and I’ve not watched many – is the result to an attempt to (broadly successfully) get close enough to his unusual subjects without joining in or becoming a part of the issues he is exploring, and also to document his subjects while still maintaining reasonably good professional relations with them.  Tricky balances to strike when you consider his subjects have included porn stars, white supremacists, UFO hunters, cult members and the more unusual characters from British z-list celebrity culture.

The Call of the Weird is a book which documents Theroux’s attempts, a few years later, to track down some of his subjects in the USA, and find out how life has changed.  The book is therefore three rolled into one – reminiscence about his subjects (a helpful intro for those readers who didn’t see the series); a detective story as he follows various trails and contacts in an attempt to track his subjects down; and thirdly a documentary as he describes life for his subjects once he’s met them again.

Throughout it all weaves the question of why these people do what they do – whether it’s sell their bodies or hunt aliens, aspire to be gangster rappers, hate blacks and Jews, and so on.  This gets most interesting when Theroux is forced to reflect on his own life and work, identifying it as, in some senses “weird”, and leaving us with the conclusion that to some extent we’re all a little “weird”.  Rather than merely reading about these characters you might regard as freaks and nutters and concluding with some relief that you’re thankfully “normal”, you might also find yourself reflecting on the fine line between “weird” and “normal”.

The characters Theroux meets are extraordinary, but the author’s approach to them is fascinating, because – on the whole – he wins trust and gets an intimate update on their lives and those around him.  On one or two of his subjects the trail runs dry (they all seem to have watched the documentary episodes about themselves, and not all are unconditionally delighted), but mostly he manages to track them down and catch up.

It’s a slightly surreal scene that he paints when, for instance, having small talk with someone who is wildly racist, or attempting to talk to a prostitute who is more used to different lines of conversations with men.  Indeed, it is when he is tracking down a prostitute he previously met that one of his most poignant reflections come in – he watches the girls in the brothel he is writing about in a karaoke session, and makes a wry observation on what these women are most missing out on by noting that the songs they choose are all love songs.

On occasions (particularly in the chapter on a character in the porn industry) the detail can be a little stomach-churning, but on the whole Theroux tries not to judge, and tries to describe the person behind the often challenging persona, and for most of his subjects this leads to a feeling among the reader of pity above anything else.

The book is an interesting examination of what makes people tick, why people choose unusual avenues of belief or action, and how “counter-cultures” relate to the “real” world around them.

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