Paul Theroux has created a rich body of consistently interesting work, including such novels as The Family Arsenal (1976) and such travel books as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975). Millroy the Magician, his thirtieth book, reflects Theroux’s continuing concern with what it means to be lonely and unloved in the contemporary world.
Cape Cod may be picturesque and romantic to its visitors, but to many year-round residents it is merely a place to live. Fifteen-year-old Jilly Farina lives there in lower-middle-class squalor, sometimes with her drunken, widowed father, whom she calls Dada, sometimes with her abusive grandmother, known as Gaga. Jilly is without purpose until she meets Millroy the Magician at the Barnstable fairgrounds, and he induces the boyish adolescent to be his companion and assistant.
The large, bald, mustached Millroy is much more than a magician. He restricts himself to a diet of foods mentioned in the Bible, mostly grains, nuts, and fruits. After he proposes a segment mixing magic and nutrition to a Boston children’s program, he quickly takes over the show, dumping the obnoxious, effeminate host by exposing the man’s hatred for children. Millroy enlists the short, slender Jilly, who he has dressed as a boy and introduces as his son, Alex, to recruit teenagers as cast members for the show. Millroy’s program is a big hit until his charges go too far in advocating how the foods favored by the magician will result in healthier bowel movements. (Millroy is as obsessed by excrement as by food.)
Millroy’s next venture is to take over a rundown Boston diner and convert it, with the help of a crew of inner-city African American teenagers, into a successful restaurant featuring his Scripture-inspired dishes. The success of the Day One Diner is parallel to that of the Sunday-morning religious program in which Millroy combines magic, spirituality, and healthy recipes.
As the program and the diners spread to other parts of the United States, Millroy becomes a major celebrity, and the news media paint him as a con man resembling the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry (1927). These charges are unfair, since Millroy asks for no followers or donations, merely that people change the way they eat. The attacks are also to be expected, since he grows, despite his modest claims, increasingly messianic as the popularity of his movement grows. Like an earlier messiah, Millroy is betrayed by his followers when they turn him in to police for having an unnatural relationship with his supposed “son.” The magician and Jilly then flee to the big island of Hawaii, where she reassumes her female identity.
Theroux deliberately keeps the reader off balance in assessing Millroy’s character and motivations by using unworldly Jilly as the first-person narrator. Jilly chooses to live with Millroy because his world is cleaner, healthier, and safer than what she has known with Dada and Gaga and because she has yearned to find out what the world offers outside their limited milieu. With him, she is truly alive for the first time. Yet while she approves of his work, admires him, and protects him, she is never quite certain what exactly he is up to and is made especially uneasy by her male pose. Millroy the Magician centers around the contrast between Millroy’s confidence in his skills and Jilly’s bewilderment over a complex world from which the magician is a refuge.
The Millroy-Jilly relationship has uncomfortably sexual overtones from the beginning, when he tells her, “I want to eat you.” He feeds on her innocence, yet he also literally feeds her: “I want to fill you up. I want to put it all into you, be responsible for everything inside you.” Jilly does not want Millroy to think that while he controls what goes into her body it is “his to use.” “It was small and skinny and he was helping it to grow healthier,” she says, “but did that give him any rights to touch me? He did not try or even seem interested, but even so the answer was a flat no.” Their relationship is also almost like that of a vampire and his victim: As Millroy grows stronger, Jilly grows weaker. “The longer we were together, the less I knew him, the harder it was to predict how he would react; and I had less and less idea of how to please him.”
Jilly sympathizes with Millroy’s position as a great man destined to do great works but misunderstood by an ignorant society. He wants the public to be less dazzled by his magic than moved by his humanity, but he realizes that many obstacles can intrude. The media broadcast lies about him, nonbelievers make fun of him, and marketing experts attempt to buy his power and influence. Millroy ignores the...
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