Alexander (Louis) Theroux BENJAMIN DeMOTT - Essay

BENJAMIN DeMOTT

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I remember noticing at intervals as I read [Alexander Theroux's "Three Wogs"] that the author was a dictionary buff—a writer eager to use the precisely correct word even where literary prudence, that wonderfully self-denying sanity, would prefer imprecision to lower the authorial profile. But only at intervals. For most of its length "Three Wogs" was uncluttered with the egotistical sublime, directing the reader's eye toward a social scene at once freestanding and solidly alive. I don't recall an American fictional debut in the 1970's that created a stronger image of the writer as responsive man—lover of the human variousness that's Out There, natural enemy of self-enclosure.

Traces of the gifts that surfaced in "Three Wogs" are visible on some pages of "Darconville's Cat."… (p. 9)

I'm afraid, though, that "Darconville's Cat" will disappoint those whose expectations for this author were shaped by "Three Wogs." The reason is that the book seldom if ever breaks out of the self-idolizing mind of its hero….

As for Darconville's mind: It "was like one of those Gothic cathedrals of which he was so fond, mysterious within, and filled with light…."…

Somewhere inside all this celebration one senses a spirit of irony trying to learn how to breathe, but the air's too dense, the cloud of self-approval too oppressive. As a result, irony chokes on itself and dies, and with its passing, hope vanishes for a check on authorial self-indulgence. (p. 30)

The book is awash with lists and catalogues…. There's an endless (and unoriginal) disquisition on the interdependencies of good and evil. There's an obsession with parallels. Everywhere the plot thickens by doubling and trebling. Nowhere does the spiral top out and, for this reader, that meant a bottom line, as they say, of exhaustion not illumination.

Energy does indeed pump in many of these chapters…. And, touring the cathedral of Darconville's mind, you do encounter memorable observations…. But "Darconville's Cat" as a whole doesn't begin to be worthy of Alexander Theroux's substantial gifts: Here too, sadly, inflation's out of control. (p. 31)

Benjamin DeMott, "Awash with Lists and Catalogues," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1981, pp. 9, 30-1.