March 22, 2007


The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures. By Louis Theroux. Da Capo. $24.

Career Match: Connecting Who You Are with What You Love to Do. By Shoya Zichy, with Ann Bidou. AMACOM. $15.

      Louis Theroux has made a career out of creating offbeat documentaries about people who are, shall we say, a touch off the beaten track. Or perhaps just touched. Louis, son of noted travel writer Paul Theroux, does a great deal of traveling of his own, but his purpose is to chronicle people rather than places. And not just any people: he looks for the avowedly strange ones. It may be that there are more of these in America than elsewhere, or it may just be that Americans are more up-front about their oddities and more willing to explore them in a documentary, but it is the United States rather than the United Kingdom, where he was brought up, that has given Theroux most of the fodder for his works. (Theroux is actually a dual U.S. and British citizen.) The Call of the Weird, Theroux’s first book, is a chronicle of his revisits to the subjects of his documentaries, in which he becomes involved (however peripherally) in their lives and describes (often in considerable detail) their day-to-day existence. It’s an odd book, not because the subjects are odd (although most people would say many of them are), but because Theroux is not quite sure what tone to take. Is Theroux smirking at Thor Templar, Lord Commander of the Earth Protectorate and killer, so he claims, of 10 aliens? Or is he exploring Templar as a study in pathology? Or is he taking him almost-seriously? Similarly, how does he really feel about the Wild Horse brothel in Nevada? “The relationships between the working girls and their customers could be surprisingly human and well-rounded. They liked many of the men who visited them. Occasionally they would get crushes. As I stayed longer, it was the naturalness that existed between the women and the customers that struck me.” Has Theroux hit on something socially significant here, or is he putting the reader on, or has he been watching too many “whore with a heart of gold” movies? It’s hard to say – and by the time a reader starts getting really interested in figuring out what angle to take on Theroux’s observations, he has moved on to another element of American fringe culture. If you simply take the portraits of Theroux’s subjects at face value, you can certainly enjoy his bright writing about the porn-king wannabe, the former pimp who manages a hip-hop group, even the neo-Nazi and her twin daughters. But pinning down the authorial voice is difficult; and without knowing what Theroux really thinks of his subjects, it is hard to say whether he is laughing with or at them, and – by extension – with or at his readers.

      Theroux does seem to have found a career that matches his peripatetic personality, but most people are not lucky enough to find an ideal job – which would be something you would do for nothing, but are paid for, and paid well. Career coach Shoya Zichy believes it’s possible to match your career to your personality, and has devised a test along the lines of Myers-Briggs personality typing that she says will help you connect with what you love. It’s best to take Career Match with a grain of salt, though, since the test – assuming you accept its accuracy – may show only that what you are currently doing, and perhaps doing very well, is not what you most deeply want to do. This is scarcely news: many people know they are not working in an ideal situation, but they understand that the necessities of life require them to perform certain work nevertheless. Zichy does offer four pages at the end of Career Match in which she tells people how to search for careers with which they would be highly compatible. But that’s an afterthought, and not a very realistic one at that. The test itself is the point of this book.

      Here’s how it works: you answer a series of questions based on what you tend to do or prefer 51% of the time. From that you develop a “Color Q Personality Style Self-Assessment” that designates you as Green, Red, Blue or Gold, with appropriate modifications based on your answer pattern (“Green/Gold Extrovert,” “Red/Blue Introvert,” etc.). Zichy (assisted by Ann Bidou) presents the information in a quick, breezily attractive style: “Red/Green Introvert: …You recharge your batteries by being alone, rather than being with others. It’s likely you have little patience for this book and are just reading this to please someone.” The tests are fun to take and really can provide some useful insights. But the more Zichy gets into the concept of a “prism company” (well, of course you need different types of people for a company to work well, no matter how you define those types), the more she presents point-by-point behavioral checklists (“How to Recognize a Green,” “How to Communicate with a Green”), the more her book seems gimmicky rather than genuinely useful. Still, there is value here, as in any system that attempts to explain the differences among people so everyone can work together more effectively. But don’t count on using Career Match to dump your unfulfilling job and talk your way into an ideal one. Life is neither that simple nor that neatly packaged.

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