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The Call of the WeirdReview - The Call of the Weird
Travels in American Subcultures
by Louis Theroux
Da Capo, 2007
Review by Andrew Lugg, Ph.D.
May 29th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 22)

Between 1994 and 2004 Louis Theroux produced a string of TV documentaries on US subcultures and in The Call of the Weird he revisits old haunts and checks up on "ex-interviewees".  Unsurprisingly he had trouble tracking down some of his subjects but along the way rounded up new ones, many with their own stories to tell.

 The bulk of the book is centered on the lives and times of ten oddballs, one per chapter (there is also a prologue, epilogue and "introduction to the US edition", all short).  We are regaled with the ideas and exploits of a self-proclaimed scourge/slayer of extraterrestrials, a sometime male porn star, a famous singer (Ike Turner), a patriot/militiaman, a legal-brothel worker/hostess, a white supremacist, a gangsta rapper/pimp (Mello T), a survivor of a suicide cult, a huckster/shyster (Marshall Sylver) and a Neo-Nazi/stage mother.

 One could hardly ask for a motlier cast of characters.  The Bible thumpers, anti-Semites and ufologists believe the weirdest things, the sex-traders engage in creepy, even weird, practices and, though not particularly weird, Ike Turner is definitely unusual, Mello T decidedly dodgy and Marshall Sylver a top-of-the-line scalawag.

 Theroux deplores the "windy generalizations" that plague discussions of the bizarre but, for all his good intentions, adds some of his own.  "Americans are no weirder than anyone else" is pretty windy, as are: "Even when their deepest convictions are challenged [people] continue on their way, sticking to the old routine" and (especially strangely in a book with a chapter on a suicide cult): "[F]eeling alive is more important than telling the truth".

 Maybe the only thing to be said about weirdness in general is that people come in all shapes and sizes and distributions have tails.  Still Theroux could have tried to figure out what makes his subjects tick.  However peculiar, they cannot have been totally opaque.  No doubt money and "stardom" loom large in the sex workers' and porn actors' calculations but what, I was left wondering, could possess someone to believe Jews run the world, to refuse to carry a driver's license on principle or to desire to "exit the vehicle" while still in the prime of life?

 Whatever the jacket blurb may promise, Theroux says next to nothing about what it "mean[s] ... to be weird, or 'to be yourself'" or about whether "we choose our beliefs, or [they] choose us".  He is content to describe the passing show and leave us the job of determining what, if anything, his subjects share and why they think and act as they do.  The Call of the Weird is a nice title but all too often it is difficult to know what is doing the calling and who is being called.

  Discussions of the odd are not exactly in short supply, and there can't be many who read books who don't know there's a lot of screwiness out there.  At this late date what is needed is not more description and reporting but explanation and analysis, at least a new angle or insight.  Also I'd have appreciated a word or two on what it is about the loony that fascinates, dare I say calls, the rest of us.  Is it just that we are disinclined to believe that not everyone is like us?

 Theroux (Oxford University, first-class honors in modern history) presents himself as regular bloke whom nothing can faze.  Fair enough.  But he might have probed more.  A self-proclaimed "liberal journalist", he is remarkably reluctant to confront what in civilian life he surely deems intellectually shoddy and morally shifty.  Judgment and posturing can be tiresome, but engagement is not the same thing -- and wouldn't have hurt.

 My guess is that Theroux's background in documentary television lets him down.  He thinks like a film-maker, and long stretches of the book read like transcribed interviews.  In film, showing is the thing, and most of what Theroux describes would, I fancy, have come across better on the screen.  Actually, the best parts of the book are those furthest from TV, the asides about small-town USA, for instance.

There is the occasional poor sentence ("It was here that my road now tended") and the occasional corny remark ("My subconscious was warning me that Marshall and I were more alike than I realized.  Like Marshall I influenced people, I practiced forms of journalistic persuasion, ultimately for my own ends").  But not too many, and one can, if one enjoys news of the nutty, sit back and enjoy the ride.

As a commercial venture, The Call of the Weird is hard to fault.  Theroux is billed as a presenter and entertainer, and this is what he does mostly and best: present and entertain.  My main regret is that he did not bite off more, dig deeper and take a stab at saying something.

 

© 2007 Andrew Lugg

 

Since writing Wittgenstein's Investigations 1-133 (Routledge, 2000/2004) Andrew Lugg has been working on Wittgenstein's remarks about color and W.V. Quine's philosophy.  He has also written on bunkum, flim-flam and quackery.


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