Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943
Paul Edward Theroux (thuh-REW) is the primary delineator in fiction of Americans in exile and is the best-known American travel writer of his time. He is the son of Albert Eugene, who was a shoe-leather salesman, and Anne Dittami Theroux, a teacher. Among his six siblings is novelist Alexander Theroux. Young Theroux sought privacy from his large family by reading and decided to become a writer when he was fourteen.
After high school, he attended the University of Maine for one year and graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1963. He then briefly went to graduate school at Syracuse University before joining the Peace Corps. He taught English at Soche Hill College in Limbe, Malawi, until October, 1965, when he was arrested and deported for spying and aiding revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the country’s dictator. Theroux had volunteered to be a messenger for the dictator’s leading opponent, not realizing that the man was plotting an assassination. Expelled from the Peace Corps, he lectured at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, until 1968. His first novel, Waldo, was published in 1967, the year he married Anne Castle, a fellow teacher; they have two sons. Theroux taught Jacobean drama at the University of Singapore from 1968 until 1971, when he decided to write full-time. He lived for many years in England, his wife’s native country. Following their divorce, he returned to the United States and settled in East Sandwich, Massachusetts.
Theroux’s fiction reflects his experiences: Most of it deals with exiles, usually Americans, in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and England. Fong and the Indians presents a Chinese Catholic living in Kenya and subjected to the prejudice of Africans, Americans, and the British. Jungle Lovers chronicles two Americans trying to improve the lives of the citizens of Malawi and discovering strong resistance to change. Since Theroux’s fiction is ironic and skeptical, the Americans’ motives are ambiguous. The hero of Saint Jack, perhaps Theroux’s best novel, is a middle-aged American hustler and pimp in Singapore. The Black House, a subtle horror tale, concerns an English anthropologist who returns to England after years in Uganda to find himself so alienated that he has an affair with a beautiful woman created by his imagination.
In 1975 Theroux’s career entered a new phase with the publication of The Great Railway Bazaar. Always in love with trains and travel, he took a four-month trip through Asia and turned his impressions into a surprise best-seller. Such travel writing had not been popular since the 1930’s, but Theroux’s book, a distinctive blend of colorful details, decadence, wit, and anger, almost single-handedly created a new readership, paving the way for his books about Latin America, England, and China, as well as similar works by writers such as Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. Before his first travel book, Theroux’s novels were generally well received by reviewers and ignored by readers. Afterward, such novels as The Family Arsenal and The Mosquito Coast became best-sellers.
Theroux writes realistic fiction, almost comedies of manners, earning for him comparisons with Anthony Trollope, Henry James, W. Somerset Maugham, and Evelyn Waugh. On another level, his works are darkly ironic, violent explorations of the nature of evil similar to the fiction of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and V. S. Naipaul. Although most of his protagonists are Americans, his view of the world is said by many commentators to be Anglicized: It is concerned with the decline of the international influence of the writers from his adopted country. Also, his writings about England, as with the short-story collection The London Embassy and the travel book The Kingdom by the Sea, emphasize the economic and social decay of Great Britain.
Theroux’s infatuation with the expatriate experience is also in the English tradition, an approach to fiction that, like his travel writing, allows him to contrast cultures. His characters often find themselves at the mercy of social, political, and natural forces over which they have no control. They fail all the more when they fool themselves into thinking that they have complete control over their circumstances. In Doctor Slaughter, one of two short novels in Half Moon Street, an American scholar in London enjoys exerting power over men as a high-class prostitute only to be devastated when she realizes that she has become merely a pawn in international politics. The protagonist of The Mosquito Coast uproots his family from Massachusetts because he despises what America has become, but once in the Honduran jungle, he tries to turn it into another version of what he has fled, leading to madness and death. The protagonist of Saint Jack, a corrupt version of the title character in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900), considers himself a tainted saint, unselfishly devoted to his clients. Still, he is the least self-deluded of Theroux’s characters, recognizing the individual’s responsibility not to make the world any worse than it need be. Theroux seems torn between a cynicism about human nature and an almost Dickensian belief in the possibilities of individual goodness beneath society’s decadent, violent surface.
Several of Theroux’s novels, such as My Secret History and My Other Life, are partly autobiographical, but also partly imaginings of what the writer’s life might have been if certain things had been different. Others, such as Hotel Honolulu, are based in Theroux’s experience as a traveler and a writer (the protagonist of the former novel is a blocked writer) but wander further afield. In all cases, however, Theroux is acknowledged as a writer who has amassed an unrivaled knowledge of the world and its inhabitants which he puts to good purpose in all of his writing.
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