The appearance of a new book by Paul Theroux will inevitably stir memories in the minds of most readers of one of the most popular and moving novels published in recent years. Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast caused a mild sensation in the publishing world in 1982, bringing national attention to a writer who had been publishing fine fiction and nonfiction for two decades. The novel had all the right ingredients to appeal to a wide audience: a good story with a mix of comedy and suspense, capped with a tragic scene that touches the reader’s heart but does not traumatize; crisp, carefully crafted prose that does not call attention to itself; a rich texture of allusion that illuminates the novel’s subtexts. This modern-day Bildungsroman suggested the best of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens in its portrait of the young hero, while simultaneously highlighting the sad condition of the modern world that its teenage protagonist sees so clearly all around him. It is a novel that will be hard to top.
The Mosquito Coast is also the kind of novel that sends readers back to earlier works by the same author to see if they have missed something and—perhaps not always to the novelist’s pleasure—makes his future works subject to immediate comparison with the books that brought him into the national limelight. Many novelists are never able to overcome their “big book.” Among contemporary writers, one need look no further than Joseph Heller (Catch-22, 1961) for verification. If some critics are correct, even Nobel Prize winners have suffered this fate: Witness John Steinbeck, whose thirty-year career after The Grapes of Wrath (1939) yielded no novel to match that American classic. Nor is the phenomenon confined to the American twentieth century: Several major English novelists of this century and the last wrote their masterpiece while young or middle-aged and then spent the rest of their lives trying in vain to match the performance. Even Dickens, who was able to sustain the success he achieved with Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) through three more works, eventually found himself at odds with his reading public for a brief period.
This long prelude helps to explain the predicament that Paul Theroux now faces with each new book he writes. Readers expect another The Mosquito Coast; not getting such a novel, they have a tendency to denigrate the new work as a “falling off.” Such was the fate of The London Embassy (1983), a clever assemblage of short stories linked by the presence of a narrator employed in the embassy who sees, hears, or participates in the action in the dozen-and-a-half vignettes that make up the collection. A good book, to be sure, but not on par with The Mosquito Coast; one expects Theroux to do better.
On the heels of The London Embassy comes Theroux’s latest offering, Half Moon Street, comprising two novellas. The first, “Doctor Slaughter,” is long enough to have been published by itself as a book in Great Britain, while the second, “Doctor DeMarr,” is little more than an extended short story. There is something to be said, however, for the pairing in the American edition. Both novellas deal with “doctors” who really are not doctors in the sense in which most people think of the word. Both are stories of people who lead double lives. In both novellas, a chance event presents the main character with an intriguing temptation that leads to unforeseen, and undesirable, consequences. In both novellas, Theroux controls the point of view in such a way that the irony of circumstance becomes apparent to the reader and adds to the pleasure of the reading experience.
What makes these stories different from earlier works by Theroux is the absence of comic humor. The broadbrush satire of Fong and the Indians (1968), the gentle pathos of The Mosquito Coast, the uplifting romantic comedy of the ending of The London Embassy are all missing from these stories. Here, instead, is grim, black humor, a kind of bitter irony that reminds the reader not of Anthony Trollope (whose works Theroux frequently cites) but Thomas Hardy.
Because the impact of these stories depends in great part on the surprise endings, it is difficult to comment on them in detail without spoiling the pleasure of those who have not yet read the book. Nevertheless, some observations can be made about Theroux’s plotting to show that, far from being inferior work, these stories—especially “Doctor Slaughter”—are further evidence of this novelist’s mastery of his craft.
“Doctor DeMarr” plays upon the notion that twins are actually halves of a single person. Gerald DeMarr, living a quiet life in the home that his father willed him, suddenly finds himself confronting his twin brother who had disappeared years before. George DeMarr has returned home, obviously in a state of great agitation, seeking temporary refuge. Though he resents his brother, George, Gerald allows him to stay at their home; Gerald goes away for awhile, and when he returns, he finds George dead. Evidence convinces him that George was involved in drug-related activities; curious to know of his brother’s past, Gerald seeks out George’s business office. There he is mistaken for George and almost by accident assumes the identity of the dead “Doctor DeMarr.” Pretending to be his brother helps Gerald to overcome some of his own character faults, but the reader senses that assuming the identity of another can only lead to disaster, and Theroux...
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