Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Through the character of Jack Flowers, Saint Jack satirizes certain aspects of the American Dream. Jack longs for “success, comfort, renown,” hustles to keep the possibility of the dream alive, but essentially hopes that it will come about suddenly, dramatically, through no direct effort of his own. Someone somewhere will spot some special something in Jack and bestow great wealth and privilege upon him. The irony is that the American Dream is supposed to be the reward for hard work and initiative, and Jack does work hard for long hours. He prides himself on the quality of his pimping, on his charging much less for his prostitutes than he could actually get. He is an honest, industrious man, but where does it get him? He merely survives.

Jack wishes that he could be even more than a president, more than a king: He wants to be a saint. His work on the streets, in the bars, is not hustling but “conscientious shepherding”: “It wasn’t the money that drove me; I can’t call it holy charity, but it was as close to a Christian act as that sort of friendly commerce could be, keeping those already astray happy and from harm, within caution’s limits.” Jack does not fool himself about the value of the service he provides; he is certain of its necessity. His “unselfish” dedication to his customers protects them from greedy cabbies, secret societies, transvestites, sadists, venereal disease. Jack’s world is hardly pure, but it lacks the evasions and self-justifications of that of Eddie Shuck: “I took blame, I risked damnation, I didn’t cheat: A Useful Man, my tombstone motto would go.” He looks after others in the way that he wishes someone would look after him; he is the kind of beneficient angel whom he has long been hoping will visit him.

Theroux and his protagonist recognize the moral ambiguity of a society cluttered by war, pornography, and corruption, but they also realize the individual’s responsibility not to make this society any worse than it need be. Such an individual in such a less-than-perfect world can be a kind of saint.