Call Of The Weird: Travels in American Subcultures

Book Reviews | Oct 27th, 2007

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Author: Louis Theroux
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Genre: Travel/Sociology
Pages: 266
Retail Price: 9.99
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Louis Theroux was (is?) a BBC journalist who years ago hosted a program on “weird” American subcultures, interviewing – to the shock and delight of stuffy Britons – the relatively strange lives of their American cousins. Life in England must be pretty dull because some of the “weird” interviewees included porn stars, prostitutes, rap artists and Ike Turner. Okay, granted, Ike Turner is pretty weird.

This book chronicles Theroux’s attempt to reunite with his subjects years later. Each chapter focuses on a different interviewee with whom Theroux attempts to reconnect. In the process, he revisits the subcultures and its colorful characters in a (mostly) respectful and humanizing way. (I never watched the BBC program, but from the way it’s described, it sounds judgmental toward these subcultures, and possibly poked fun at some of the more delusional groups, like UFO believers/abductees and paranoid anti-government separatists.)

Some of the chapters seemed pointless in light of the fact that what’s weird to Theroux is pretty normal to us Americans – like strippers and rappers and so on. But most of the chapters do provide an engaging inside look at some of the more reclusive and derided groups. Most interesting to me were the mountain-living government separatists, the white power groups, and the followers of a sleazy televangelist. The most fascinating, if repulsive, subjects were Prussian Blue – a tweenie girl pop duo who sing about white power and race wars, and their certifiably psychotic mother/manager.

There are some issues with the book – for one, it reads a little like a biographic travelogue and is often more about Theroux and his attempts at making contacts than about the history and sociology of the groups themselves. This is not a deeply analytical book. But the main problem is that the narrative is chronologically confusing: because Theroux talks about his first go-round with BBC in tandem with his “reunion tour,” the events become muddled and it’s hard to tell if he’s talking about the past or present.

The book also sometimes dips into exploitation – especially when he pushes hard to reconnect with people who felt humiliated by his BBC show and wish to regain or preserve their privacy. Theroux, acting wide-eyed and naive, doggedly pursues his where-are-they-now, occasionally going to great lengths to disturb people’s private (and often changed) lives.

But that’s only occasionally. For the most part, Theroux maintains respectful empathy while also relating his journey in an amusing and engaging manner. Call of the Weird isn’t deep but it’s a good combination of breezy and insightful – and it’s insightful not only about “weird” American subcultures, but also in revealing an outsider’s perception of them.

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