In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote what seemed an uncharacteristic book, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. That the writer of Treasure Island (1883) and A Child's Garden of Verses (1885) would explore the power of addiction and expose the monsters that dwell in us all was disconcerting to Victorian society. There have been many conjectures on the origin of this book, but the primary source for the inner struggle with substances that release the inner demon was Stevenson's own life. As a sickly child plagued with lung disease, Stevenson was treated with morphine and later added alcohol and cocaine to a potent cocktail to which he became dependent on and off for the rest of his life — at one time he remarked, "Wine is bottled poetry." His marriage in 1880 to Fanny Osborne, an American divorcee nine years his senior, exacerbated his condition as she willingly joined him in smoking hashish and using other mood-changing substances. Stevenson's restlessness and his inability to find a place to live suitable for his health led him to embark in 1888 on a voyage to the islands of the South Pacific. He never again touched continental land and died in Samoa in 1894.
Maarten Troost (who wrote two earlier memoirs about his time in the South Pacific) is a recovering alcoholic, revisiting islands he originally visited while struggling with his active addiction. In recovery, Troost finds a growing appreciation for Stevenson and uses Stevenson's travel writings in the latter part of this life as a model for his own new journey into the South Pacific. Troost and Stevenson are part of a large band of artists, especially writers, whose addiction to alcohol and other drugs affect not only their lives but also their writing. I'll deal with this more in Beyond the Book.
It may seem strange after such an introduction to say that Troost's Headhunters on My Doorstep is delightful, hilarious, and filled with wisdom grounded in an engaging sense of humor. He mirrors Stevenson's own reflection, "I never knew the world was so amusing," which he uses on the front-piece. Though Troost does give us a guide to exploring the South Pacific and describes both the histories and cultures of various islands, the story is very much a memoir. Though he doesn't obsess about his own drunken odyssey and the collapse of his life which led him to begin the journey to sobriety, that is important context for understanding how he experiences these islands. He may treat his own drunken escapades with hilarity, but beneath the laughter there is great determination and hope.
The South Pacific of the 19th century was portrayed as a romantic paradise. Captain Cook's accounts of his explorations, Melville's Typee, and Paul Gauguin's dazzling displays of a world that never existed created a pastel haze over the whole region which was difficult to dispel. Even in the 20th century, James Michener's and Nordhoff/Hall's accounts present a region of Eden-like charm, innocent and easy morals, and surreal beauty which belies reality. While fully appreciating the charms of the South Pacific, Stevenson and Troost make no attempt to ignore the glaring inequities, the poverty, and the cataclysmic climate changes that were and are devastating much of the region.
What I found most compelling was that Troost was actually writing a love story. As we flit from the Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, to Tarawa, to Kiribati, to Tahiti and its capital city of Papeete, and through many islands and atolls until we finally land on Samoa, Maarten finds his greatest joys in the people and in the remaining untouched natural wonders of the whole region. He realizes that, though he will leave, much of his heart remains with these islands. Stevenson wrote from the home he built on Samoa and named Vailima, "Few...who come to the islands leave them...No part of the world exerts the same attractive power upon the visitor."
Maarten Troost returns home to his family near D.C., but he knows his inner journey to the true peace of the islands is still before him. While at Vailima, he understands:
...I felt a bond with Stevenson. I understood the siren song of the itinerant traveler, followed its tune to distant shores...Every journey has its end. The trick, of course, is to recognize it. I followed the lure of the drink for far too long, never seeing that, invariably, it always took me to the same miserable place...I felt the same profound need to...establish a root somewhere, to put a declarative end to one life and to immerse myself, both feet in, into another...It takes a lot of weeding and tilling of the soil to create a [home], but I knew how to do that. You do it one day at a time.
G.K. Chesterson said, "When we travel, we travel not to see new places with new eyes; but that when we come home we see home with new eyes." Troost's bewitching account of his travels in the most remote parts of the earth fills my everyday world with a bit more light.
This review was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the June 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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