I became a fan of J. Maarten Troost when I read The Sex Lives of Cannibals, his 2004 travelogue that describes the time he spent on the little-known (to most Americans, at least) South Pacific nation of Kirabati. The author’s style is amusing and self-deprecating, and he has some worthwhile commentary on politics and the attitudes of the Western world. Nine years later, Mr. Troost published Headhunters on My Doorstep, and while I still enjoy his writing style, the book sadly lacks substance.
J. Maarten Troost takes another trip to the South Pacific, this time retracing the path once taken by Robert Louis Stevenson (the title of the book, incidentally, is taken from a Stevenson quote). Troost, an alcoholic, has recently been released from rehab and decides that most of his problems come from living on large continents. “Experience tells me that if I’m not surrounded by an ocean, my life crumbles like a stale cookie,” he bemoans on page 3. So, against the better advice of his friends and his sponsor to not make any major life changes in the first year after rehab, he decides that another island adventure is what he needs.
One would expect this setup to be fodder for intense self-analysis and meaningful encounters, but this book just never reaches any real depth. I still enjoy Troost’s writing: his seeming obsession with vomit in the first few chapters aside, he can turn an amusing phrase with the best of them. And there are some poignant moments, as when he finds himself longing for alcohol, “. . . I still missed that kinetic buzz, that surge of something, the rush of pleasure and calm that accompanied drinking back when it still worked.” But for all the moments when I paused to appreciate a great bit of writing, all those great bits really didn’t amount to a cohesive whole. The book bounces from stories about R.L. Stevenson, to encounters with quirky foreign visitors to the islands, to thoughts on addiction. This could have been a really compelling read; instead, it’s an acute reminder of the importance of a good editor.
Categorizing J. Maarten Troost’s books isn’t particularly easy: are they memoirs, travel guides, adventure stories? I expect part of the appeal is they can’t exactly be pinned down so easily. In this case, Headhunters on My Doorstep is a collection of amusing anecdotes. It’s an entertaining but disappointingly light read.