Headhunters on My Doorstep
A True Treasure Island Ghost Story
The bestselling author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals recounts his latest hilarious misadventures in the South Pacific, following in the footsteps of his unlikely idol, Robert Louis Stevenson
Readers and critics alike adore J. Maarten Troost for his signature wry and witty take on the adventure memoir. Hailed by Entertainment Weekly as a “funny, candid, and down-to-earth travel companion,” Troost’s bestselling debut, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, is an enduring favorite about life in the South Seas.
Headhunters on My Doorstep chronicles Troost’s return to the South Pacific after his struggle with alcoholism and time in rehab left him numb to life. Deciding to retrace the path once traveled by the author of Treasure Island, Troost “follows” Robert Louis Stevenson to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, the Gilberts, and Samoa, explaining (and demonstrating) how these exotic locales earned nicknames like, “The Man Eating Isle,” “The Refuge of Exiles,” and “The Island of Merrymaking.”
Somewhere en route from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Tahiti to exploring islands as Robert Louis Stevenson saw them, Troost gradually awakens to the beauty of life and reconnects with his family and the world. Headhunters on My Doorstep is a funny yet poignant account of one man’s journey to find himself that will captivate travel writing aficionados, Robert Louis Stevenson fans, and anyone who has ever lost his way.
Everyone has problems. Spend a few moments catching up with friends and you’re likely to hear a litany of catastrophes.
“I lost my job at the prison,” one might say.
“I’m going to prison,” says another.
“I’m about to lose my home.”
“I blew mine up to collect the insurance.”
“My ferret died.”
“I ate mine.”
“. . .”
Tales of woe had become inescapable. What were once simple quandaries now seemed to come equipped with trapdoors. One misstep and you’d tumble into the chute of doom, where demotions became terminations, homeowners became squatters, and Little Bandit was no longer safe. I was no exception. I too had problems. Multitudes of problems. If something could go wrong, it usually did. The only law that seemed to apply to me was Mr. Murphy’s. For a long while, decades even, the sun had shone upon me. Life had been an effortless glide. I’d traveled the world, married my soul mate, sired two strapping boys, and wrote books that— I’ve been confidently informed—landed on the bestseller list in Eugene, Oregon. I couldn’t explain why good things happened to me. They just did. But then, like a bad Chinese proverb, my good fortune evaporated like a spilled Slurpee in a Phoenix parking lot. Everything that could go wrong . . . was not a thought I dared to finish. It could always get worse, and usually it did.
What’d happened? I wondered. Good luck seeks no antecedent, but bad luck demands an inquest. Was it simply written in the cosmos? Did the yin of happiness necessitate the yang of misery? Could it simply be bad karma? No, I thought, as I reflected on the causes of my misfortune. Behind every event, every circumstance, lay a cold, hard trail of facts. I needed only to follow the breadcrumbs of past experience to bring me to the source of my tribulations. And there, sadly, I found something immense and unmovable:
Bad things happened to me on large land masses. Terrible things.
This was a most unfortunate realization, of course. How I’d hoped to discover an unhappy childhood, an unjust prison sentence, or a soul-scarring bout of acne to explain the recent trajectory of my life. Who wants to blame their woes on something as inalterable as the North American tectonic plate? After all, continents are— at the very least— nice to look at. I too could admire majestic, snow-glazed mountains, the rivers that flowed with the tide of history, the buzz of the megacity. I am, for the record, appreciative of boreal forests and rain forests, deserts, and the vast expanse of the northern tundra. I like New York and Los Angeles, as well as Mumbai, Shanghai, and Dubai. I am fond of small towns. Also apple pie and yak, though not together. All this can be found on continents. But, alas, experience tells me that if I’m not surrounded by an ocean, my life crumbles like a stale cookie.
Take my most recent sojourn in North America. I’d protected my well-being by living on a peninsula. Surrounded by water on three sides, I navigated the perils of the modern world, and whenever events or situations threatened to leave my eyes agog and my head a- splitting, I retreated to a rented sailboat, where secure in a finite space surrounded by the infinite blue of the ocean, I navigated pitching waves and morning fog with an aplomb that failed me on dry land. On water I was free and sure; on land I felt like a lost fish. But then, chasing a job, I moved deeper into the continent, distant from familiar waters and sandy dunes, and there I fell.
So this was bad. And it happened on a continent. In my mind, the case was closed.
Praise for The Sex Lives of Cannibals
“Troost has a command of place and narrative that puts him in the company of some of today’s best travel writers." — Elle
“A comic masterwork of travel writing” — Publishers Weekly
“A delightful, self-depreciating, extremely sly account of life in a place so wretched it gives new, terrible meaning to getting away from it all.” — National Geographic Adventure
"The Sex Lives of Cannibals is certain to be one of the most harrowing, witty and satisfying books of the summer... hilarious."
"Books touted as "laugh-out-loud funny" frequently aren't, but fist-time author Troost has succeeded... Full of tall tales, ironic philosophizing and beer jokes, the book skewers the notion that 'civilized' Western ways are always a good thing."
“Troost has found his calling in broadly humorous travel writing. He's a natural: he can evoke a place with an ardor that will have you wanting to jump on the first plane; he's read his history; he's no chump when it comes to the ironies and iniquities of politics… He can write an entire engaging chapter on the day the beer ran out in Tarawa…. [but] also laugh at himself, almost as often as the islanders do. Troost… lives up to the billing as ‘a travel, adventure, humor, memoir kind of book’-and a really good one, at that.” — Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Getting Stoned with Savages:
— Entertainment Weekly
“Troost is a funny, candid, and down-to-earth travel companion.” — Entertainment Weekly
“Troost manages to relate his misadventures in an irreverently funny style . . . this makes for a good beach read on your own vacation.” — Pittsburgh TribuneReview
“One of Troost’s greatest successes is that he’s not reporting, exactly, not writing as a journalist would, but simply living his life in a faraway place and writing about it.”— The New York Times
“Troost… is a travel writer who delivers the gratifying, old-school goods: curious cultural practices; encounters with venomous, nay murderous, creatures; perspective on recent history, with all the chaos wrought by European interlopers.”
"Those who enjoyed... The Sex Lives of Cannibals will not be disappointed with this follow-up... readers sitting in offices, yearning to break free and live on a tropical isle, [Getting Stoned with Savages] provides a wonderful, witty view into the experience- the good and the bad. Recommended for all libraries." — Library Journal
Praise for Lost on Planet China; One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation — National Geographic Traveler
“Funny, insightful. China as you’ve never read it before.” — National Geographic Traveler
“At once breezy, funny, and edgy, with enough good reporting to make you feel what it’s like to walk China’s real streets.” — Houston Chronicle
“There are moments of humor and poignancy: an unsettling dalliance with an English translator called Meow Meow and an encounter with child beggars camped beneath a JumboTron screen in Qingdao that’s broadcasting an N.B.A playoff game.” — New York Times Book Review
“Troost’s crisp, engaging prose invites the reader to experience his adventures right alongside him. At turns meditative, whimsical, humorous, and shocked, Troost is an excellent guide to the vast, multifaceted country that is modern-day China.” — Booklist
“Made me laugh out loud more times then I can remember…Troost is already being lauded as the new generation’s answer to Bill Bryson; in my view , his wirting is markedly different, but it will definitely find an appreciative audience among Bryson fans.” — Bookpage
“Troost’s adventures are peppered with tremendous humor… and he’s magnificent writing about himself in the role of the bumbling Westerner. Readers will howl over his gastronomic imbroglios as well as his knack for attracting opportunistic, overly friendly women who offer their services as ‘tour guides.’” — Kirkus Reviews
“Troost is refreshingly upbeat… readers interested in a warts-and-all look at this complicated, evolving country will find this rich in education.” — Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“This is one of the year’s best travel books.” — World Hum
“Funny and engrossing.” — Barre Montpelier Times Argus
“Troost is the kind of guy with whom you’d drink a few beers, swap some stories, and laugh until you cry.” — Winnipeg Free Press
“Readers of the world should rejoice… Lost on Planet China is every bit as entertaining as [Troost’s] previous two. With his biting, self-depreciating wit, Troost becomes the perfect traveling companion. An example of travel writing at its best. Settle back and enjoy one of the most rollicking literary vacations yet.” — Tucson Citizen
“Hilarious.” — National Geographic Adventure
“It's a pleasure to travel with him… [a] hilarious and cutting narrative.” — Chicago Tribune
“Lost on Planet China seems to follow the Paul Theroux school of travel writing.” — Lonely Planet
View a map of Robert Louis Stevenson's travels
A Conversation with J. Maarten Troost
What is it about the South Pacific that draws you back?
Have you ever wanted to escape, to fall off the map and disappear for a good long while? Me too. No place in the world elicits that kind of draw than an island in the South Seas. It’s where I go when I’m looking for a little dissonance in my life, a place to turn down the white noise of continental life and replace it with something more elemental. Like sharks. And long sea journeys. And sublime beauty. And all the other things that get your senses humming.
Also, having written two books about the region, I liked the idea of completing a South Pacific trilogy. It makes me feel like, I don’t know, a real man now.
You followed in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson. Why him? Have you read his books?
Stevenson has long been peripheral to my life, just hovering in the margins. It seemed like no matter where I washed up, whether on the islands of Kiribati or the Central Coast of California, I was somehow following in his footsteps. But it wasn’t until I started reading him that I decided to explicitly follow Stevenson. I liked how he described the early books on the South Pacific. He called them sugar candy sham epics. This dude can write, I thought. And then, the more I read of him - the more I began to immerse myself in his world - the more I felt like I was communing with some kind of soul brother. He does what all the great writers do, which is to make you feel like you’re not alone.
What was it like going back to Kiribati?
Really trippy. At low tide, it seemed like nothing had changed since I lived there, which is remarkable really. Elsewhere in the world, the pace of change seems to have accelerated to warp speed. Kiribati, however, resides elsewhere in the space-time continuum, in a place where the movement of a turtle would be regarded as swift and reckless. At high tide, however, it is apparent that everything has changed. The islands are sinking. In a few years, Kiribati will be no more. And that is very sad.
Did it hurt getting a tattoo?
Not enough. I now look upon my body as a canvas, which is just so wrong when you’re over forty.
So you used to be a drunk. Discuss.
Yes, it turns out I’m an alcoholic. Yay for me. As far as I can tell, my story is pretty typical – a long period of fun with the drink, followed by a long period where the drinking became habitual and progressively less fun, followed by my world basically collapsing on account of my boozing, which was no fun at all. On the upside, as far as diseases go, this is a pretty good one to get. All you need to do is stop drinking and it’s amazing how much better your life gets. No chemo, no amputations of limbs, no painful injections. On the downside, quitting drinking can be devilishly hard for alcoholics. Not long after I finished my South Pacific travels I found myself at a literary festival in France, where I blithely accepted a glass of champagne and opened up that Pandora’s box all over again. Sigh. How I envy those with allergies to gluten and peanuts. But it is what it is and there’s nothing to do but to be honest about it, pick yourself up, and take it one day at a time.
Do you have any advice or resources for those who are looking to quit drinking?
There are as many paths to recovery as there are alcoholics. But generally, what works for most people is some combination of meetings with like-minded souls, exercise, yoga, meditation, and a healthy diet. But I like what Stephen King had to say about alcoholism. He called it the Liar’s Disease. Boozers and junkies are reflexive liars. And they’re really good at it. Being honest is pretty much the foundation of sobriety.
You talk about replacing drinking with running. Do you still run?
Yes, running remains important to me. I mix it up with Bikram Yoga, but I still get a kick out of going for a long run and not dying of a cardiac event.
There sure are some funny names for islands in the South Pacific. What is your favorite name and why?
In my home, Fakarava never fails to elicit snorts and giggles.
You discuss collecting native artwork. What is your most prized possession?
I have a large clay and bark mask from the island of Malekula in Vanuatu. Its gaze is one of devilish delight, like it knows the answer to a great cosmic riddle and it can’t help but laugh.
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