We Americans tend to pride ourselves on having — or at least ourselves to have — an independent or maverick streak. Regardless of whether it actually exists, it also seems to contribute to America seeming to have a perhaps disproportionate share of kooks. And whether you consider them part of a counterculture, a subculture or the margins of American society, they attract the attention of London-based documentary filmmakers.
Beginning in 1994, Louis Theroux, who holds dual U.S./British citizenship, started a series of documentaries in which he explored a variety of American subcultures, ranging from skinheads to UFO cults to the porn industry. Many ended up in a BBC television series called Weird Weekends. Theroux later decided to catch up with some of the people portrayed in that series, an effort that resulted in The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures. The book, originally published in the U.K. last year, has now been released in the U.S. While it allows us to look at some, shall we say, unique Americans, it is not a wholly satisfying examination.
Theroux is at least the second London filmmaker to examine the American fringe. Jon Ronson took a somewhat narrower look in Them: Adventures with Extremists, released in the U.S. five years ago. Ronson's book went beyond just the U.S. but, in fairness to Theroux, his BBC series was not limited to the U.S. Also, while Ronson tended to focus more on those on the extreme political fringe, Theroux goes beyond that. In The Call of the Weird, he takes readers with him on his journeys to and visits to neo-Nazis, prostitutes and even Ike Turner and a rap artist, devoting a chapter to each subculture he is exploring.
Ultimately, The Call of the Weird is undermined by a variety of problems. Of the two most apparent failings, one may may be particular to Theroux using the written word for his follow-up, while the other is perhaps inherent to the subject.
Because Theroux's first examination of "weird" people was in the years prior to 2000 and the millennialism that existed, he wants to see if and how things have changed, particularly in a post-9/11 America. In order to reflect those changes, Theroux must summarize what was portrayed in documentary series. As a result, some chapters consist of as much recapping as exploring the current lives, status and beliefs of the individuals portrayed. This is perhaps more irksome to the American reader, who is unlikely to have seen the BBC series, which appeared here on the Bravo cable television network and has yet to be released on DVD in the U.S. Even some of Theroux's subjects seem dismayed that he doesn't show up with a film crew and they realize he is writing a book rather than putting them on television.
The perhaps inherent problem is that these are basically sketches of the individuals and, with rare exception, we never really get much past the surface. That is not surprising in and of itself because it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully portray an individual, let alone a subculture, simply by spending several days or weeks with them. As a result, it at times feel like being a dilettante, flitting from UFO enthusiasts to racists to pornographers to rappers without getting much more than a slight flavor for each.
That is not to say the book is wholly unsuccessful. First off, Theroux writes in an enjoyable, well-paced fashion. Many of his vignettes are as effective as the balance of the chapters in which they appear. For example, the book opens with Theroux going to the International UFO Congress in search of Thor Templar, the "Lord Commander of the Earth Protectorate" and founder of a business he called the "Alien Resistance Movement. When Theroux first met him in 1997, Thor claimed to have killed 10 extraterrestrial aliens. When Theroux is initially unable to find him, he follows up with Bob Short, who "channels" the wisdom of an alien named Korton. Theroux's recounting of his session with Korton is perhaps as enlightening as a deeper profile. And when Theroux finally locates Thor, the nature of their exchanges says perhaps as much as anything could about Earthmen who claim to kill extraterrestrials.
Theroux also visits Jerry Gruidl, a member of the Aryan Nations organization and community in Idaho. Over the intervening years, Gruidl left the Aryan Nations compound due to a falling out with founder Pastor Richard Butler and the compound itself was bankrupted by a court judgment against the organization. Theroux's portrayal of Gruidl and his life has a feel of true affection for the man, something which provides an almost touching counterpoint to Gruidl's views and the balance of Theroux's experience in examining a deeply racist element of American society. Theroux's look at 12-year-old twin girls who are a singing sensation in the neo-Nazi movement is chilling and his interviews with members of Heaven's Gate, the UFO cult that had a mass suicide in 1997, reveals an aspect of the cult perhaps lost in standard coverage of it.
Yet one has to wonder just how UFO cultists and racist groups fit in with aging musician Turner, a gangsta rap artist/pimp who goes by the name Mello T, and a man prosecuted for fraud for his seminars purporting to teach people how to become millionaires. While the first two might arguably reflect how the fringe (rock and rap music) can rise to a level of success and prominence in America, they ultimately weaken the premise that this is an exploration of "the weird."
It is also perhaps worth mentioning in passing that Theroux is the son of Paul Theroux, the American novelist and travel writer. Why? Because that, too, may have an impact on how well the book does in America. On my last trip to the local chain bookstore I looked for and was able to find The Call of the Weird — in the "Travel Essays" section next to his father's travel books.