On a quest for elusive muse

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Blinding Light

A novel by Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin: 488 pp. $26

Like many a one-book wonder who loses his muse, Slade Steadman is going to extremes to get back on track and produce another after a 20-year dry spell. The quest takes him on a trip to the jungles of Ecuador to try a rare hallucinogenic drug, which promises to restore his gift.

His only published book, “Trespassing,” a chronicle of his daring escapade through 28 countries of Europe, Asia and Africa without a passport, has become a cult classic making him famous. He is now independently wealthy thanks to a movie deal, subsequent TV series and the merchandising of his trademark leather jacket and other travel gear.

Although his longtime relationship with Ava is essentially over, she has agreed to accompany him on the Ecuador trip. The finality of their decision to part rekindles his flagging desire for the beautiful doctor and increases the sexual tension throughout the perilous journey.

Among the thrill-seeking tourists on the flight to Quito is a clumsy and irritating German scientist and journalist, Manfred Steiger, at first ignored by the pair, who is perhaps more than he seems. He makes a Mephistophelean bargain with Steadman, helping him to find the psychotropic plant known as the tiger’s blindfold. And though it does dispel his writer’s block, the drug also produces temporary blindness, which heightens his awareness even as he becomes addicted to its power.

“Drinking the muddy mixture, Steadman was blinded and uplifted. In the glow of his sightlessness nothing was hidden, the world was vast and bright and its vital odors filled his soul. The simplest touch roused him by the pressure of its tragic eloquence. He learned a whole narrative of smell, a grammar of sound, a syntax of touch.”

Ava stays with Steadman and he dictates to her a new novel, explicit in lascivious detail, which stimulates and broadens their sexual relationship. His blindness comes to define him as a writer and as a man. But hubris precipitates his downfall.

Theroux writes convincingly of notoriety, the book tour and travel writing, having lived most of his protagonist’s experiences, except, of course, for the writer’s block. The author of 24 novels, three of which-“Saint Jack,” “The Mosquito Coast” and “Half Moon Street,”-became feature films, he also beguiled critics with 14 books based on his extensive travels in Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Africa.

In a recent conversation with publishers, he was asked the usual question as to how much of the novel is biographical. He said he deliberately took a trip to the Orient Province in the Ecuadorian rainforest to experience the drug and the ceremonies, to meet a shaman and to gather the background material for the book.

“My own trip somewhat resembled the one in the book, though the gringos were quite different. Such drug tours are not common but they do exist and the people who seek them out fascinate me. This first part of the book is itself like a whole book-I wanted my narrative to rest upon something very solid, the persuasiveness of this opening part.”

He admits to trying most drugs once, but says that what works best for him is “clear-headedness, good health and a great night’s sleep.”

In this way, Theroux has taken the ancient theme of self-discovery and acquired perception through blindness out of the realm of myth and made it convincingly real.

Paul Theroux will sign copies of “Blinding Light” at Diesel, A Bookstore in Malibu, June 16, 7:30 p.m.