Paul Theroux

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Jim Mann (review date 8 May 1988)

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SOURCE: Mann, Jim. “A Trip to China that Stopped Being a Trip.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 May 1988): 5.

[In the following review, Mann praises the detail and honesty of Theroux's description of China in Riding the Iron Rooster.]

There will probably be no better portrait of how China looks and feels to a foreigner in the 1980s than Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster. At long last, a talented writer has captured in one sprawling, extraordinary book all the craziness, the contradictions, the mixture of hope and despair, the wild swings between control and utter chaos which can be found in China today. Nothing else written to date describes so well the nation which Westerners discover these days when they live in China, or when they venture to travel outside the well-worn tourist meccas of Beijing, Shanghai, Canton and Xian.

Although he has published several novels, Theroux is best known as one of America's leading travel writers. His reputation is based largely on the popularity of The Great Railway Bazaar, a book in which he chronicled his sojourns along some of the leading train routes in the world. In that earlier work, Theroux, oddly enough, seemed to focus more on the train travel than he did on the countries he was traversing and the people he met.

Riding the Iron Rooster surpasses Theroux's previous train books. His general approach for the new book is not unlike that of previous ones: over a period of a year or so, in 1986–87, Theroux rode the rails through China, stopping off for days or weeks at a time to visit its major cities and provinces. Yet the end result is something different from the Railway Bazaar—not so much a travel book as an epic account of China itself.

Theroux learned quickly that China's vaunted openness is, to say the least, not without limits. During the early parts of the trip he found himself in the clutches of the Ministry of Railways, one of China's most intractable and incorrigible bureaucracies, which assigned a hapless official named Fang to accompany Theroux on the trains and trail along behind him whenever he disembarked. Theroux finally got rid of his escort by wearing him down. “I have never taken so many trains at once,” moaned Fang. “I have never slept on so many trains. Trains, trains.” In one of the zaniest episodes in the book, this veteran railway bureaucrat pleaded with Theroux to switch to airplanes.

The author has a wonderful eye for detail. Many others have described the new hustlers on the streets of Chinese cities, but Theroux summarizes the phenomenon in a single anecdote: “A man tried to sell me a trophy awarded to the winner of a schoolboy javelin competition in 1933 at a Japanese high school. ‘Genuine silver,’ he whispered. ‘Qing Dynasty.’”

The book is full of Theroux's mordant, epigrammatic reflections on Chinese customs, habits and scenery. Granted an interview with a Chinese official, he observes: “There is something in the very nature of Chinese authority that makes anyone who asks questions seem childishly naive and credulous, not to say dangerous.” Trying to use the phone, he finds, “When you got through, you often heard five other voices—or more—holding simultaneous conversations. A Chinese phone was like Chinese life: It was full of other people, close together, trying to do exactly what you were trying to do.” China's new hotels “smelled of fish glue and failure,” he writes; and as for their decor, “the only variables were the size of the pool, the dimensions of the tortoise, the depth...

(This entire section contains 1059 words.)

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of the algae, and was the Great Wall painted or embroidered?” Upon seeing too much of urban China, Theroux concludes: “The words ‘a Chinese city’ had acquired a peculiar horror for me, like ‘Russian toilet,’ or ‘Turkish prison,’ or ‘journalist's ethics.’”

When it comes to Chinese politics, Theroux slips badly. He writes of the Cultural Revolution with all the depth of a comic book, as if there were only evil young Red Guards and tyrannized Chinese intellectuals, with no power struggle at the top ranks of the Communist Party at the root of it all. Theroux's perfunctory efforts to write about the student demonstrations and political upheavals which took place while he was in China are equally simplistic. He calls Peng Zhen, one of the old Communist Party leaders who at the beginning of 1987 unsuccessfully challenged the authority of Deng Xiaoping, a “dogmatic Maoist”; in fact, Peng was Mao's very first target at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

In the end, Theroux succeeds because he learns to be utterly honest, both about China and with himself. “Travel writing is a minor form of autobiography,” he observes. At the outset, Theroux is not a particularly likable character. As he prepares to enter China, he seems overwhelmed with ennui and self-absorption; once, he even gratuitously calls the reader's attention to his supposed fame as a writer. So, too, in the early stages of the book Theroux conceals as much as he tells us. He never explains why he chooses to enter China with a tour group. He never tells us when or how he learned Chinese. Midway through the book, a few months unaccountably vanish; it seems likely that Theroux has seized the opportunity to escape from Canton to the Western comfort of Hong Kong, but he doesn't admit it.

But China is a humbling place, and the more time Theroux spent there, the more honest he became. At the very end of his journey, after a harrowing rail-and-car trip overland to Tibet, he confesses to the ultimate heresy. Paul Theroux, a man whose very name is associated with railways, confesses he might not really like trains very much. “I thought I liked railways until I saw Tibet, and then I realized that I liked wilderness much more,” he says. The cause of this personal discovery was China. “This Chinese trip was so long and it had claimed so much of me that it stopped being a trip,” writes Theroux. “It was another part of my life; and ending the travel was not a return but a kind of departure, which I regretted.”

So, too, Riding the Iron Rooster claimed so much of Theroux that he produced more than just a travel book. No recent visitor, to China has written about it so well.


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Paul Theroux 1941-

American travel writer, novelist, nonfiction writer, short story writer, memoirist, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Theroux's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 8, 11, 15, 28, and 46.

A prolific travel writer and novelist, Theroux has earned distinction for his vivid, frank, and often cynical depictions of exotic geographic locales and the unglamorous aspects of world tourism. In best-selling travelogues such as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), which documents his train journey through Central Asia, Theroux turns his unsparing eye on the personalities, habits, and idiosyncrasies of those he encounters, including both indigenous people and fellow travelers. Theroux's fiction, including his popular novel The Mosquito Coast (1981), reflects his experiences abroad and relates the dark humor, irony, and inevitable tragedy that result from engagements between the Western and non-Western world. As a novelist, Theroux often incorporates the literary device of a double self—notably in My Secret History (1989) and My Other Life (1996)—to explore conflicts between reality, imagination, and desire.

Biographical Information

Born in Medford, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, Theroux was the third of seven children of Albert Eugene, a salesman, and Anne Frances Dittami, a teacher. Two of Theroux's brothers are also writers: Alexander, a respected novelist, and Peter, a journalist and Arabic translator. Eager to escape his hometown, Theroux enrolled at the University of Maine in 1959, but transferred after one year to the University of Massachusetts where he declared his pacifist philosophy and participated in antiwar demonstrations. Upon graduating in 1963, and after a brief period of further study at Syracuse University, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to the African nation of Malawi to teach English at the Soche Hill College. Theroux began his writing career there, contributing articles and poems to magazines in several countries. He published a critique of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and drew the ire of the American ambassador in Malawi. His political activities—including contributions to a magazine revealed to be an organ of the West German secret police and his friendship with revolutionaries seeking to overthrow Malawi's dictatorial government—led to his expulsion from both Malawi and the Peace Corps in 1965; the U.S. government fined him for six months of unsatisfactory service. Despite his experience in Malawi, Theroux was fascinated with central Africa and soon returned to Kampala, Uganda, where he taught English at Makerere University. During his three years in Uganda, Theroux met future Nobel Prize-winning author V. S. Naipaul, who became Theroux's mentor and close friend. He also published his first two novels, Waldo (1967) and Fong and the Indians (1968), and met Anne Castle, an English broadcaster, whom he married in 1967. They had two children together, but divorced in 1993. Following an attack during a political demonstration in 1968, the couple and their first son left Africa for Singapore, where Theroux wrote several additional novels and lectured in English at the University of Singapore until 1971. The family moved to London that year, and Theroux decided to work full-time as an author. With the publication of Saint Jack (1973), Theroux began to receive critical attention. He also began publishing in other genres with his first short story collection, Sinning with Annie and Other Stories (1972), and V. S. Naipaul (1972), a critical survey of his mentor's writings. His first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, garnered a New York Times Book Review Editors's Choice citation, and his second, The Old Patagonian Express (1979), was nominated for an American Book Award. Theroux won subsequent awards for his fiction, including the Whitbread Prize for Picture Palace (1978) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Mosquito Coast, which was also nominated for an American Book Award. Theroux has long labored outside of the realm of academia, and he has occasionally expressed mild contempt for university creative writing programs and patronage in the form of fellowships, endowments, and grants, preferring instead the greater satisfaction of a “paying” reader. Several of his works have been adapted into motion pictures: Saint Jack in 1979, The Mosquito Coast in 1986, and Doctor Slaughter (1984) as the film Half Moon Street, also in 1986. Theroux wed Shelia Donnely in 1995 and maintains residences in London, New England, and Hawaii.

Major Works

Though an accomplished novelist, Theroux is perhaps best known for his popular travel writings, which document his far-flung adventures throughout the world. In his travels, Theroux typically circumvents common tourist destinations and presents keen, if highly prejudiced and offhanded, observations of the people and places he encounters. Rather than dwell upon the unique cuisine or architecture of a given location, Theroux is more likely to denounce the local inhabitants for their littered streets or to bemoan the insufferable conversation of his traveling companions. His first two travelogues recount monumental excursions by train: The Great Railway Bazaar documents a four-month odyssey from London through Asia Minor, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, the Far East, and the former Soviet Union aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, the Orient Express, and other lesser-known rail routes. The Old Patagonian Express recounts Theroux's journey from Boston through Central and South America to the southernmost point of Argentina aboard various trains. A third rail-based travelogue, Riding the Iron Rooster (1988) chronicles Theroux's journey through Siberia and China, including a trip to Tibet, during which he was accompanied by a watchful Chinese official. Theroux took to the water for other excursions: Sailing through China (1983) recounts his 1980 voyage up the Yangtze River with a group of Western millionaires aboard a luxury liner; The Kingdom by the Sea (1983) describes his circumnavigation of Great Britain and visits to its coastal communities; and The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) recounts his voyage in a collapsible kayak from New Zealand and Australia through Polynesia, the Trobriands, the Samoas, Tonga, Cook Island, Tahiti, and Easter Island, ending in Hawaii. Theroux's travels around the Mediterranean coast are recorded in The Pillars of Hercules (1995), a journey beginning at Gibraltar and proceeding through Spain, France, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, and Morocco. Theroux has also published several collections of his travel writings and personal reminiscences in Sunrise with Seamonsters (1985) and Fresh Air Fiend (2000).

Much of Theroux's fiction corresponds to his eventful life and travels, reflecting his experiences as an expatriate and perennial outsider. Theroux's first novel, Waldo, centers upon a disillusioned young man who, after befriending a wealthy nymphomaniac, turns to journalism and dreams of writing a novel in an effort to mollify the chaos he perceives. His next three novels—Fong and the Indians,Girls at Play, (1969) and Jungle Lovers (1971)—are set in postcolonial Africa and depict the squalor, immorality, and bigotry that result from cultural clashes between Western and non-Western people. As in much of Theroux's writing, the prejudice, idealism, and ignorance of all involved—whether American, British, Asian, or African—is bitterly satirized and the prospect of meaningful change appears bleak. While Saint Jack is set in Singapore and relates the unsavory world of prostitution through the travails of a middle-aged, expatriate American pimp, Theroux's next two novels are both set in England. The Black House (1974) is a gothic tale involving an obnoxious anthropologist who, after returning to England from Uganda, estranges his wife through an affair with an apparitional woman. The Family Arsenal (1976) involves the misguided aspirations of a group of London-based terrorists. His next novel, Picture Palace, recollects the life, art, and incestuous longings of an acclaimed septuagenarian photographer as she prepares for a retrospective exhibit of her work. Perhaps Theroux's best-known novel, The Mosquito Coast features Allie Fox, a maniacal eccentric who relocates his wife and children from Massachusetts to the Honduran jungle, where he takes on the role of prophet, reviles American fast-food values, and attempts—with disastrous results—to establish a utopian society in miniature. Half Moon Street (1984) consists of two novellas, Doctor Slaughter and Doctor DeMarr, which emphasize the dangers of leading dual lives. In Doctor Slaughter, a graduate student joins a call-girl organization to earn money for her education and unwittingly becomes entangled in an assassination plot. In Doctor DeMarr, a man assumes his twin brother's identity after finding him dead of a drug overdose. The narrative highlights the paradoxes as well as the comic aspects of duality.

Theroux's next several novels have American settings. O-Zone (1986) depicts a dystopic near-future in which a disparate band of New Yorkers leave their overpopulated and overpoliced city to find redemption in the feared Outer Zone, a vast area of the American heartland evacuated after a supposedly disastrous nuclear accident. Chicago Loop (1990) is a disturbing portrait of a psychopathic mind. When a wealthy, married businessman is compelled to murder a woman he met through a newspaper personal, he atones for his transgression by dressing like the murdered woman and seeking out situations where he will be sexually abused. The businessman eventually commits suicide. Millroy the Magician (1993) satirizes American consumer culture, particularly the American appetite for fast food, and incorporates elements of parable and magic realism. A former carnival magician, Millroy reads the Bible as a cookbook and becomes a famous evangelist of the American diet. He is hailed on supermarket tabloids and talk shows, hosts a popular children's television show, and eventually opens a chain of “Day One” restaurants, featuring his own biblically sanctioned meals, where obese, self-indulgent Americans are taught how to eat a low-fat, vegetarian diet, pay attention to their bowels, and produce at least two pounds of waste per day. The narrator, fourteen-year-old Jilly, is a refugee from an alcoholic father and an abusive grandmother. She protects Millroy, and disguised as Millroy's son, ultimately accompanies him to an island refuge. Kowloon Tong (1997) is a political thriller centering upon the 1997 reclamation of Hong Kong, a long-time British colony, by the communist People's Republic of China. The story revolves around British expatriates Neville “Bunt” Mullard and his mother, Betty—both racist Anglophiles who revile Chinese culture—and the fate of their family textile factory on the eve of the takeover. Bunt, who frequents disreputable bars and is sexually involved with a Chinese employee, becomes entangled in a dangerous intrigue with a Chinese gangster, Hung, who is determined to repossess the textile factory by guile or force. Hotel Honolulu (2000) relates the voyeuristic observations of a failed middle-aged author, unnamed and resembling Theroux, who relocates to Hawaii to escape his literary troubles and manage a seedy hotel. He quickly marries one of the hotel housekeepers—who is revealed to be an illegitimate child of President John F. Kennedy—and reports in a series of fragmentary chapters the sad, strange, and often perverse activities of the hotel's various employees and guests.

While much of Theroux's fiction includes the motif of a double life—cast as interiorized fantasies and obsessions or exteriorized deceptions and perversions—this theme is most evident in two of Theroux's quasi-autobiographical novels, My Secret History and My Other Life. The former features Andre Parent, an author who bears an uncanny resemblance to Theroux. Parent was born in Massachusetts, travels to Africa, marries a British woman, lives in London, and writes popular travel books. He is also a deeply troubled man leading a double-life, attempting to balance his public persona with a private hedonism, including self-indulgent erotic pleasures, serial philandering, and lies that eventually upend his life. Though a prefatory disclaimer asserts that the book's characters are imaginary, the close parallels between Parent and Theroux suggest otherwise. My Other Life presents an alternative vision of Theroux's life with an even smaller margin of fictional pretense. Though the author describes the work as “an imaginary memoir” that explores unrealized possibilities, the main character is named Paul Theroux, a novelist and travel writer with all of the same publishing credentials and biographical details as the real Theroux. Along with his concern for forfeited opportunities—inspired in part by a postcard he receives from an ex-lover, prompting him to locate her ex-husband in an effort to see what would have become of himself if he had stayed with the woman—Theroux provides unflattering portraits of author Anthony Burgess, the British royal family, and London's literati. Theroux subsequently published his first veritable memoirs, Sir Vidia's Shadow (1998), which recollects his decades-long relationship with V. S. Naipaul and their acrimonious falling out. Though the memoirs expresses Theroux's gratitude for the older writer's guidance and companionship, it is largely an outlet for Theroux's bitterness over the unilateral dissolution of their friendship, which ended abruptly when Naipaul remarried shortly after the death of his first wife and callously rebuffed Theroux at the insistence of his new spouse. While providing insight into Naipaul's complex character, Theroux's account is also rife with recrimination, anger, and insult. In addition to his novels, Theroux has published several collections of short stories, including Sinning with Annie and Other Stories,The Consul's File (1977), World's End and Other Stories (1980), and The London Embassy (1982). He has also authored several plays and children's books.

Critical Reception

In a career spanning several decades, Theroux has established a reputation as one of contemporary literature's most respected chroniclers of the expatriate experience. Critics have admired Theroux's honesty, seriousness, and determination to explore his “secret self” in his fiction and travel books. Both My Secret History and My Other Life were generally appreciated as interesting—if beguiling and unclassifiable—reinterpretations of the author's life and persona. Reviewers have noted that Theroux is a gifted raconteur whose vivid portrayals of foreign lands and people reveal his own observational skill and literary talent. Reviewers have also observed similarities between Theroux's work and that of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Naipaul. Despite the praise for his very competent prose and accurate reporting, critics have not considered him equal to these authors. In his less successful fiction, such as O-Zone and Hotel Honolulu, Theroux has been accused of belaboring themes, subtexts, and structural conceits, and displaying a base preoccupation with sexual perversity. Moreover, critics have noted that Theroux's own voice sometimes displaces that of his narrator's in his eagerness to demonstrate his own literary gifts. While much of Theroux's acclaim as a novelist rests upon the success of The Mosquito Coast, several of his later novels, including Millroy the Magician and Kowloon Tong, have garnered favorable reviews. Theroux has also earned praise for his short fiction in The Collected Stories (1997) and essays in his collection Fresh Air Fiend. Though a versatile author, Theroux is perhaps best regarded as a travel writer, with The Great Railway Bazaar considered by many a classic of the genre. Subsequent travelogues such as Riding the Iron Rooster and The Happy Isles of Oceania have fortified Theroux's reputation as an engrossing and unpredictable guide. However, his highly successful travel books have been disliked by some critics, who maintain that his curmudgeonly attitude and dislike for almost everything and everyone ranges from tiresome to rude, especially in The Pillars of Hercules. Other critics—and Theroux himself—have stated that the raw, unvarnished quality of his perceptions give his experiences authenticity and reveal a satiric, unflattering view of humankind. His detractors, on the other hand, have maintained that the immediacy of Theroux's accounts belies the author's xenophobia and lack of reflection. Theroux has also generated considerable controversy with Sir Vidia's Shadow, which was viewed by many as an immature ad hominem attack on Naipaul by an estranged disciple. Other critics, however, have sympathized with Theroux's hurt feelings and praised the memoirs, despite its bracing anger, for its insight into Naipaul's personality and the peculiar dynamics of their poignant friendship.

Timothy Tung (review date 8–22 August 1988)

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SOURCE: Tung, Timothy. “Travails of a Tireless Traveler.” New Leader 71, no. 13 (8–22 August 1988): 20–21.

[In the following review of Riding the Iron Rooster, Tung objects to Theroux's negative portrayal of China, which the critic finds only partially justified.]

Paul Theroux's China is not a pretty country. Of all the regions he visited on the trip that resulted in this book [Riding the Iron Rooster], only Tibet rates high. With rare enthusiasm he praises Lhasa, its capital, as “the one place in China I eagerly entered, enjoyed being in, and was reluctant to leave.” When he finally did so, he uttered a prayer: “Please let me come back.”

It was the clear air and scenic beauty of the Himalayas that Theroux fell in love with while in Tibet. The journey there was another matter. In a spirit of adventure, he opted to reach Lhasa by land instead of by air. That entailed first a 30-hour ride to Golmud, a town in the Qinghai desert, in a “dirty, scruffy, extremely crowded” train, with no hot water, food or lights; and then a 1,000-mile drive over rugged, deserted terrain in a damaged car with an inept, Beethoven-loving driver and his whining girl friend. During the three days required for the second leg of the trip, the author endured inedible food, filthy lodgings, a head injury caused by an auto mishap, and a nagging fear that he might be abandoned at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

Theroux's kind of travel is clearly not an average tourist's cup of tea. Yet almost as remarkable as the experiences he relates is the Chinese government's tolerance in allowing a foreign writer to roam about remote areas in total freedom, without an official escort. It evidently helped that he had guanxi (connections) in high places. Before he set out on his outlandish journey, he had been wined and dined in Beijing by Bette Bao Lord, fellow author (her novel Spring Moon was being made into a movie in China at the time) and wife of the American Ambassador. At the embassy dinner he was introduced to Chinese dignitaries (“all Party members”), including several English-speaking writers and scholars.

Theroux, author of the 1975 bestseller The Great Railroad Bazaar, loves to travel by rail. To avoid arriving in China with jet lag he had happily joined a tour originating in London that consisted of some 20 English, American, French, German, and Australian vacationers. They made their way by rail to Beijing via Warsaw, Moscow, Siberia, and Mongolia.

Although Theroux is obviously fascinated by strange places, he seems averse to people of all kinds. His fellow travelers are variously depicted as bullying, ugly, aloof, pompous, ignorant, and arrogant. After he parted company with the tour, he quickly acquired a distaste for the Chinese he encountered, with the possible exception of some of the writers he met at Mrs. Lord's.

Throughout the book Theroux describes the Chinese as almost universally unclean, evasive, insensitive, and bad-mannered. The detail verges on novelistic: “Everyone hawked, everyone spat, sometimes dribbling, sometimes in a trajectory that ran like candle-wax down the side of a spittoon. … They walked scuffingly, sort of skating, with their arms flapping … or else hustling puppetlike. … And they talked very loudly in that deaf, nagging and interrupting way. … Was there a national deafness?” In close quarters on trains Theroux found the behavior of the Chinese particularly disagreeable: “They were energetic litterers, and they were hellish in toilets. …”

Yet such horrors did not spoil his fondness for rail travel. He spent months riding the “Iron Rooster” line and others all over the vast land. Whatever train he found himself on, he persisted in going to the end of its run. His willingness to endure every conceivable annoyance for the sake of collecting materials for his book appears to the reader almost masochistic.

Theroux's decision to revisit China—he had been there before in 1980—was made at the urging of his brother, who said it “had become a different place.” (This brother, a lawyer, presumably knew what he was talking about, having “traveled to China 109 times since 1972.”) The China Theroux had seen earlier had struck him as “bleak and exhausted.” What he took in on this trip, six years later, did not change that impression.

Agree with him or not, you cannot accuse Theroux of basing his judgment on inadequate observation. He reached Urumchi in the northwest and Lanxiang in the northeast, both close to the Soviet border. He made it to Kunming in southwesternmost China and Xiamen (Amoy) on the southeastern coast.

On the way from one extremity to another, he stopped at the inner Mongolian city of Hohhot, but failed to meet a single Mongol. He gazed on terra-cotta warriors in Xian and admired ice sculptures in Harbin. He made a detour in an empty train to Shaoshan, where Mao Zedong's childhood home once received 8,000 pilgrims daily.

Besides Lhasa, only a few places had distinct flavors for Theroux. Turfan, the Uigher town in Xinjiang Province (“the least Chinese place I had seen”), reminded him of a Mediterranean village. Qingdao impressed him with its German architectural influence and its bright and tidy beaches. And he “found it almost impossible to find fault with” Xiamen: “Because it is in the south, the fruit is wonderful and cheap … fish and seafood are plentiful and various.”

As a roaming author looking for specifics to fill up his book scheme, Theroux's knowledge of the Chinese language served him well. In the course of his journey he had ample opportunity to converse with locals, many of whom were eager to tell him about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Others were more keen on trading their yuan for precious dollars; almost everywhere he went, men and women approached him wanting to “shansh marnie.” The lack of inhibition displayed by the Chinese in both cases certainly indicates a relaxation of the Communist Party's grip on the people.

The reader is not encouraged, however, to believe that China is on the track to becoming a modern industrialized nation. An American who was sent by Kodak to supervise the installation of a coasting machine informed Theroux that the young Chinese he worked with were “the worst, the laziest, the slowest, the most arrogant.” This jibes with the writer's own perception of a generation that lost its youth in Mao's “10 years of turmoil.”

While some of Theroux's generalizations concerning the Chinese contain a modicum of truth, others are downright fatuous. On seeing the biggest statue of Buddha in the world in Leshan, a city in Sichuan Province, he is moved to reflect on it as “an example of the Chinese fascination with freakishness—the very big, the very weird, the highly unusual.” From his dealings with bureaucrats he concludes that they invariably answer questions with a nervous laugh, which seems to him “sinister.” When he reads in a newspaper of a little girl's severed arm being successfully reattached by Chinese physicians, he is reminded that China is “a society of patches.” No doubt, he writes, “it was this make-do-and-mend philosophy that had inspired these medical advances and miracles with amputees.”

Theroux almost never found himself unexpectedly cheered during his wanderings in China. A blessed exception was when he discovered a Chinese version of Orwell's 1984 in a Xiamen library—after the translator, whom he had met at the embassy dinner, had told him the book was restricted reading.

Overall, China's color is dull, as Theroux captures it, its smells are mostly foul, and its sound is noisy. Riding the Iron Rooster may be absorbing to read, but it is bound to discourage the potential traveler to China. And that is too bad.

Principal Works

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Waldo (novel) 1967

Fong and the Indians (novel) 1968

Girls at Play (novel) 1969

Murder in Mount Holly (novella) 1969

Jungle Lovers (novel) 1971

Sinning with Annie and Other Stories (short stories) 1972

V. S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work (nonfiction) 1972

Saint Jack (novel) 1973

The Black House (novel) 1974

The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia (nonfiction) 1975

The Family Arsenal (novel) 1976

The Consul's File (short stories) 1977

A Christmas Card (juvenilia) 1978

Picture Palace (novel) 1978

London Snow (juvenilia) 1979

The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas (nonfiction) 1979

World's End and Other Stories (short stories) 1980

The Autumn Dog (play) 1981

The Mosquito Coast (novel) 1981

The London Embassy (short stories) 1982

The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around the Coast of Great Britain (nonfiction) 1983

Sailing through China (nonfiction) 1983; republished as Down the Yangtze, 1995

Doctor Slaughter (novel) 1984

Half Moon Street: Two Short Novels [contains Doctor Slaughter and Doctor DeMarr] (novels) 1984

The Imperial Way: Making Tracks from Peshwar to Chittagong [with Steve McCurry] (nonfiction) 1985

Patagonia Revisited [with Bruce Chatwin] (nonfiction) 1985

Sunrise with Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries 1964–1984 (essays) 1985

O-Zone (novel) 1986

The White Man's Burden (play) 1987

Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China (nonfiction) 1988

My Secret History (novel) 1989

Chicago Loop (novel) 1990

Travelling the World (nonfiction) 1990

The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (nonfiction) 1992

Millroy the Magician (novel) 1993

Down the Yangtze (nonfiction) 1995

The Pillars of Hercules: The Grand Tour of the Mediterranean (nonfiction) 1995

My Other Life (novel) 1996

The Collected Stories (short stories) 1997

Kowloon Tong (novel) 1997

Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents (memoirs) 1998

The Collected Short Novels (novels) 1999

Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings, 1985–2000 (essays) 2000

Hotel Honolulu (novel) 2000

Last Places: A Journey North (nonfiction) 2000

Elizabeth Wright (review date 16 September 1988)

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SOURCE: Wright, Elizabeth. “Theroux in China.” New Statesman & Society 1, no. 15 (16 September 1988): 40.

[In the following review, Wright offers a generally positive assessment of Riding the Iron Rooster.]

Paul Theroux is a man who travels unburdened by illusions—a rare gift, and especially so in the case of those who travel to China. For centuries people from the west have imbued the Chinese with virtues in the abstract, and then on arrival in the country blame the Chinese for not living up to expectations. Or, even worse, interpret every word and action, which would be considered a normal part of human behaviour when observed anywhere else in the world, as possessing an almost mystical significance. No danger of that with Paul Theroux [in Riding the Iron Rooster].

Theroux spent a year travelling through China. It was not his first visit, but the second journey came at a time when the reforms which started in China a decade ago had gathered huge momentum. Apart from one never-to-be-repeated plane journey, Paul Theroux travelled by train (including the eponymous Iron Rooster) across vast tracts of country, sometimes revisiting a place. Though diesel is gradually taking over, many Chinese trains are still pulled by steam locomotives. The journeys are long and slow, taking the traveller through some of the most monotonous, and some of the most beautiful scenery the country has to offer.

Travelling in China one meets an extraordinary variety of people, from Chinese generals to salesmen of dubious morality, and Paul Theroux makes every attempt to communicate with them, with a greater or lesser degree of success. One irritating problem one always encounters with people writing about their China travels, when they have some knowledge of the language (and Theroux has learnt some), is that one is never sure whether a conversation has taken place in Chinese or in English.

Despite his complete lack of sentiment about the Chinese and China, Paul Theroux does make considerable attempts to understand them. Not by gazing into their souls, but by looking into their handbags and wallets to seek, among the detritus which we all carry, what forms their thoughts and their lives. Like all foreigners travelling in China, Theroux is appalled by the Chinese obsession with food. Even when disaster threatens from all sides, a meal must not be missed. Understandable, perhaps, in a country in which famine is a recent memory.

Paul Theroux notes the squalor of the country, but dispassionately. He enjoys the chaotic companionship of the long train journeys, often many days at a time. His eye for squalor is as sharp as his eye for beauty, and some of his descriptions of the countryside are extraordinarily lyrical and apt. Tibet captures him as it does most westerners, though the journey to Lhasa, with Theroux driving the limping car after the Chinese driver has crashed it, is the acme of discomfort. Though Paul Theroux doesn't really like the Chinese—with some exceptions—or their social system, the cheerfulness, toughness and straightforwardness of the Tibetans have instant appeal. The book ends with a prayer that he may return to Tibet.

The book is least readable when the author is most worried about being recognised (by his western travelling companions) as the well-known author, Paul Theroux. But once he starts to travel on his own, or with a Chinese minder, that self-obsession diminishes, and then one can really appreciate Theroux on China. He writes sharply and with his usual ability to extricate the essence of a mood or a conversation. There are flashes of real humour, and passages of depression. Sometimes there is a sameness about yet another train journey, and I don't think that the book would have lost anything by being shorter. But anyone who has travelled in China will empathise with the author and those who have not will get an acute, unsentimental and often beautiful picture of the country.

George Sim Johnston (review date 2 June 1989)

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SOURCE: Johnston, George Sim. “From Inside the Cavity.” National Review (2 June 1989): 58.

[In the following review, Johnston offers a negative assessment of My Secret History.]

Until Salman Rushdie came along, Paul Theroux was the literary establishment's most prosperous Third World junkie. Although he had published a number of novels, it was the accounts of his masochistic train rides through Asia and South America that brought him a wide reading public.

What is it about the Third World that attracts so many literary lions? There is the local color, of course; and for some a Marxist dictatorship set amid palm trees is irresistible. But the list of living writers who find refreshment in tropical squalor—Graham Greene, V. S. Naipaul, Rushdie, Theroux—suggests a deeper motive. Rushdie talks about “the hole inside me where God used to be.” This is a valuable piece of real estate for a certain kind of modern writer; and “leaving friends and order for strangers and disorder” (as Theroux once put it) is an effective way to expand the cavity.

Theroux does not give away much of himself in his travel books. He sticks to the landscape and people and is quite charming. But in his fiction we get a great deal of reportage from inside the cavity, and the charm gives way to bitterness. Instead of the raconteur of exotic modes of travel, we get a garden-variety nihilist who wants to show how empty the world is now that (for him) God has retired from the scene.

Andrew Parent, the narrator of Theroux's new novel, My Secret History, is a bleak creation indeed. We first meet him as an altar boy in suburban Massachusetts. But religion does not hold him for long, and we follow him through a career of joyless hedonism and cynical detachment which ends with literary prosperity in middle age. Although the book begins with the obligatory disclaimer that this is fiction, one suspects that the hero is indeed Theroux. The biographical data are similar, and there is a lack of imagination behind the writing that suggests the author is flogging his memory.

Andrew Parent reminds me of a proposal Evelyn Waugh once made for a contest to determine who was the biggest bore among his set in London. Waugh's idea was to have the contestants sit around a table and start talking; the winner would be the person who went on the longest. (Waugh thought his friend Randolph Churchill would crush the competition.) Parent goes on for more than five hundred pages about his fornications and resentments. He is a scoundrel; but he is neither an amusing scoundrel, like the heroes of Henry Miller (whom Theroux admires), nor a particularly original one. And his amorous affairs are as banal as anything on television.

Parent begins his sexual career trying to score off the girls in and around Boston. He gets one pregnant and spends fifty or so pages searching for an abortionist. Then he becomes headmaster of a small learning institute in Africa, which turns out to be a pig heaven where he can indulge in unlimited, guiltless sex with the native girls. For the reader, the great advantage of the African chapters is that the women there do not insist on a lot of talk first. But even in Africa, his love life is excruciatingly silly. While being treated for gonorrhea, for example, he meets a woman who is in the same situation: “This aroused me—not the disease, but the fact she was being cured. So was I! As far as I knew, we were the only two people in the country who were being treated for the clap. It made me amorous.”

Reading through My Secret History made me envious of drama critics, who at a dull performance can occupy themselves making paper cutouts of their programs. The book critic has no such outlet. The most surprising aspect of this novel is the flaccid writing, for Theroux has shown himself capable of taut, vivid prose, especially in his shorter fiction. The book is an object lesson of Henry James's warning that first-person narration “puts a premium on the loose.” Even Theroux's descriptions of exotic locales read like outtakes from his travel books.

It is a sure sign that a middlebrow novelist is floundering, moreover, when he keeps referring to the work of his betters. We hear about Conrad and Kipling, and one of Parent's girlfriends—or is it his wife? they're all alike—compares herself to Mrs. Moore in Forster's Passage to India. But Mrs. Moore, in whom Forster renders a peculiarly modern sort of despair without a trace of banality, is beyond Theroux's powers of invention.

Theroux is trying to tell us something about spiritual malaise in the modern world. But in order to have something to say on the subject, a writer has to show signs of resistance to that malaise; he cannot simply go flopping along and assume that the resulting boredom and disgust have significance. Even so black a writer as Samuel Beckett possesses a kind of stoical resolution that allows him to rise above his material and give it form. Beckett is also funny. But there is no sign in My Secret History of a moral universe larger than the puny one inhabited by the hero. And Mr. Theroux is not funny. The only humour in this book takes the form of sophomoric double entendres. There is also a preoccupation with excrement and the bodily functions that makes the reader feel as if he is in a bus-station latrine. Mr. Theroux is in need of a long train ride to clear his mind.

Further Reading

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Blank, Jonah. “Feuding Literary Titans.” U.S. News and World Report (10 August 1998): 39.

Blank discusses Theroux's severed friendship with V. S. Naipaul and the publication of Sir Vidia's Shadow.

Elson, John. “Elitist on a Grand Tour.” Time (6 November 1995): 74.

Elson praises The Pillars of Hercules, but finds its ethnocentric perspective distasteful.

Gray, Paul. “Handing over Hong Kong.” Time (2 June 1997): 75.

Gray offers a mixed assessment of Kowloon Tong, disagreeing with Theroux's negative outlook.

———. “Just the Facts (Maybe … ).” Time (9 September 1996): 80.

Gray offers a positive assessment of My Other Life.

Gray, Rockwell. “The Pungent Smell of a Rancid Friendship.” Christian Science Monitor (8 October 1998): B7.

Gray compares Sir Vidia's Shadow to tabloid journalism, pondering Theroux's motives for writing the work.

Howe, Nicholas. “Booking Passage.” New Republic (6 August 2001): 34–42.

Howe provides a discussion of contemporary travel writing, Theroux's approach to the genre, and a review of Fresh Air Fiend.

Johnson-Cramer, Sharon. “A British Family Divides as Hong Kong Returns to China.” Christian Science Monitor (25 June 1997): 15.

Johnson-Cramer states that Theroux's portrayal of Hong Kong in Kowloon Tong produces “mixed feelings.”

Levi, Peter. “Ever So Slightly Interesting.” Spectator (28 October 1995): 36.

Levi offers a negative assessment of The Pillars of Hercules, calling the work prejudiced and uninformed.

Lewis, Maggie. “Shallow Voyagers through a Vivid Future Landscape.” Christian Science Monitor (24 November 1986): 30.

Lewis offers a negative assessment of the characterization and plot of O-Zone.

Read, Piers Paul. “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Spectator (6 July 1996): 32.

Read offers a mixed assessment of My Other Life, judging the book as a collection of connected short stories that vary in quality from good to insignificant.

Ritts, Morton. “Double Vision.” Maclean's (14 August 1989): 55.

Ritts outlines the structure of My Secret History, praising its detail and characterization.

Shapiro, Laura. “A Tale of Two Giant Egos.” Newsweek (10 August 1998): 45.

Shapiro discusses Theroux's falling out with V. S. Naipaul and the publication of Sir Vidia's Shadow.

Solomon, Jay. “Observer Status.” Far Eastern Economic Review (5 September 1996): 46–47.

Solomon provides brief overview of the themes and plot of My Other Life.

Theroux, Paul, and Julie Baumgold. “Fellow Traveler.” Esquire 126, no. 3 (September 1996): 184, 182.

Baumgold comments on Theroux's life, travels, writing, and the veracity of his semi-autobiographical fiction, with commentary from Theroux himself.

Updike, John. “The Book as Cook Book.” New Yorker (15 March 1994): 92–94.

Updike offers a mixed assessment of Millroy the Magician, commending Theroux's “sinister” imagination, but finding shortcomings in the novel's schematic trappings.

Winchester, Simon. “Tonga-Tied.” Far Eastern Economic Review (3 December 1992): 32–33.

Winchester highlights the politically incorrect observations of The Happy Isles of Oceania, comparing the book's aims to those of painter Paul Gaugin's.

Additional coverage of Theroux's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 8; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 28; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:4; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33–36R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 20, 45, 74; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers, Ed. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 218; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; and Something About the Author, Vols. 44, 109.

Andrew Jaffe (review date 11 June 1989)

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SOURCE: Jaffe, Andrew. “Leavable Loves.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 June 1989): 1, 8.

[In the following review, Jaffe praises the evocative descriptions and attention to detail in My Secret History.]

Paul Theroux has written a shelf full of books—25 in all—and unlike Hemingway and Steinbeck, his writing has improved, not diminished with age, as he lets his imagination replay the many adventures of his own wide-ranging life. The result in My Secret History is a wonderful book—no doubt spiced with some elements of autobiography—about the haunting guilt of a young man born Catholic to a family of modest means in suburban Boston as he grows into adulthood and sets off in search of sexual adventure.

Theroux's main character, Andrew Parent, is introduced as an altar boy in his early teens in an era when sticking a hand under a girl's bra was a sin akin, almost, to derailing a train. In fact, at this stage, everything seems to be sinful—even befriending a priest who drinks too much—and the boy has to develop a fine skill for lying, in order to avoid the wrath that adults shower on offending teen-agers.

Then, in the summer before college, Parent becomes old enough to do “it”—furtively, in a musty room, with a girl two years his senior. (In addition, he develops some sense of proportion—as he fends off a bored, rich 50-year-old matron who works hard at trying to seduce him.) The novel also recalls the horrors of late pubescence as the boy “knocks up” his first love, and the two of them begin canvassing quacks to perform what was then an illegal, life-threatening medical procedure.

The story leaps forward to Parent's young adulthood. After college, he goes off to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, a victim of sorts of his own animal nature. Thus, he not only wants sex three times a week—he wants a different woman for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The young man's hormones are so overwhelming, he doesn't care that his partners can barely speak English or occasionally give him a low-grade venereal disease. Parent is transferred to Uganda, to run an adult studies institute, and there he meets an attractive British woman and falls deeply in love. She gets pregnant and they decide to marry—nipping in the bud her own career as a teacher. Up to this point, what carries the reader along is Theroux's skill at drawing his characters: Parent is self-absorbed, naive, arrogant. His wife, Jenny, is more complex: giving without being tender; willing to sacrifice her ambitions for the good of their relationship, but still cool and disapproving. They return to England, where she supports the family with a low-level bank job.

Then the book takes on a new dimension, as Parent, on one of his world-circling excursions, suddenly becomes homesick and rushes home—only to discover that Jenny has begun an affair with a bank executive. Now he realizes she too has her own “secret life,” and the knowledge that he has been cuckolded drives him to the edge of madness.

To this point, whatever the book lacks in plot it makes up for in Theroux's ability to evoke the rest of the world. Theroux is a master, for instance, at describing the strange netherworld of Europeans in post-colonial Africa. Theirs is a ridiculous existence. Thus Parent's Peace Corps roommate in Malawi (where Theroux taught from 1963–65) tries to avoid intimate contact with Africans and becomes intent on building an outdoor toilet nobody particularly needs. And in Uganda (where Theroux taught at Makere University from 1965–68), Parent quickly adopts the easy, useless pace of an office-bound bwana:

The parrot woke me with its squawks when Jackson uncovered its cage. Then I had breakfast—tea and papaya, and now and then Jackson fried me an egg. I read the Uganda Argus in my office, and at eleven went to the Senior Common Room for a coffee with the other faculty members. Back to my office, to sit and look at the herons, until lunchtime, usually at The Hindoo Lodge, with Neogy and Desai. If we had a curry we always went to the panwallah afterwards, and I walked home with a wedge of pan in my mouth, and spitting betel juice along Kampala Road. … And then teatime flowed into sundowner time at the Staff Club and I drank beer—often with Rashida—until I was drunk.

As the narrative reaches its final phase, Theroux is able to play man and wife against one another, adding irony upon irony, as Parent becomes successful enough to maintain two homes, one in London and the other Hyannisport, and, in that ultimate indulgence, to take a mistress. The last chapter of the book is entitled “Two of Everything.” Parent now has two sexual partners, each offering her own set of pleasures. But neither is quite satisfied as he hovers between them and what has become his other “secret” intellectual life of writing, introspection and fantasy.

Andy Parent can't decide between his two women, just as Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist couldn't make up his mind whether to go back to his ex-wife or on to his new girlfriend. Parent, like many today, can't seem to focus and often disappoints those who depend on him. His flaws play in a minor key. But Theroux uses such failings and lack of inertia to give dimension to his characters, rendering life with the subtle colors and detail of an Andrew Wyeth painting. The fact that he does this successfully in a foreign setting only makes the journey that much more enjoyable.

The book is distinguished by its sense of place and honesty. Theroux's gift for painting Third World characters—Indian shopwallahs and tourist guides, African functionaries and prostitutes—is equal to that of Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham. The narrative moves slowly—indeed, the first part of the book rambles at times and lacks the spareness or drama of his two best-known novels, Half Moon Street and The Mosquito Coast. But at 48, Theroux is of an age to enjoy the tiny nuances that separate people, and to delight in the ambivalence that plagues modern man.

David Profumo (review date 8 July 1989)

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SOURCE: Profumo, David. “Going on about Sex.” Spectator 263, no. 8400 (8 July 1989): 36–37.

[In the following negative review, Profumo criticizes the lack of emotion in My Secret History.]

There is an emphatic disclaimer prefacing this novel [My Secret History], to the effect that it is not autobiographical. This comes as a tremendous relief, for the narrator, André Parent, is an American novelist and travel-writer of such unrelenting selfishness and callousness that one would hate to think there was much of our author's own character in him. One suspects many of the wide-ranging events may be taken from the life, but if Mr Theroux assures us that ‘the characters all strolled out of my imagination,’ then we must believe him.

The novel comprises six sections which chart the life and loves of the rebarbative Parent, from his days as a lustful teenaged altar-boy near Boston, up until the present decade. Along the way we see him as a lifeguard at a snobbish country club, headmaster of a school in Nyasaland on the eve of independence, and a novelist of burgeoning reputation. I lost count of the number of girls with whom Parent records having coupled, but the success rate is suspiciously close enough to 100 per cent to make the whole business rather monotonous.

Central to the book is the notion that Parent at each stage of his existence is living two simultaneous roles, and that this means no one can ever really know him entirely. He seems very pleased with this mundane idea, but the duplicity is not of a very intriguing type; and the relentlessness with which the author insists upon it is tedious and unnecessary. As a boy, he has a secret life as a dreamer; as a rebellious college kid, he keeps separate his girl, Lucy, from his unfortunate gin-drinking patroness Mrs Mamalujian; in Africa, he secretly picks up local girls in the bar (‘I had always lived two lives’); in the end, surprise, surprise, he cheats on his wife.

As Parent travels the world, it becomes clear that he is a bird of passage, everywhere detached from his surroundings, a stranger in a strange land. There seems to be some suggestion that this may be a necessary part of his literary sensibility, but, whatever it is, it blinds him to the fact that he makes the lives of others miserable en route. So convinced is he of his superior powers of manipulation, he fails to spot his capacity for self-delusion. To hear him describe his promiscuity with the bar girls, for instance, you would think he was indulging in some form of benevolent social work; he is patronising and smug, and the extent of his sexual hypocrisy is revealed when he becomes insanely jealous that his long-suffering wife Jenny has taken a lover during his absence from London.

Because André's character so thoroughly pervades the novel, the result is a book that is rich in local colour but lacks a heart. The instances where it is genuinely moving—his youthful friendship with Father Furty, the problem priest, or his awkward relationship with his own son—are conspicuous by their rarity. Cold as the novel feels, it has some moments of supremely enjoyable black humour—a set-piece on Furty's boat, when the Women's Sodality vie for his attention with their ghastly picnics, or the antics of his colleague in Africa, Ward Rockwell, a Jock with a fixation for sanitary engineering. The latter comes up with the nice line, ‘I think I've got these urinals licked,’ which goes some way towards redeeming what is elsewhere descriptive prose of an unnervingly schoolboyish facility—vomit resembles ‘spilled soup,’ and the Taj Mahal is ‘like a newly blossomed flower with dewdrops on it.’ As a travel-writer, Parent has evidently not inherited many of his creator's talents.

In its exploration of sex, selfishness and guilt, My Secret History attempts something between Philip Roth and Martin Amis, but it fails because its nastiness seems to lack conviction. There is something manufactured in the sexuality, possibly a result of the narrator's own dispassionate attitude to his fellow beings. Parent is fascinated by his penis, but not in any very remarkable way; and when we are told that poor Lucy (who later undergoes a horrific abortion) was equally fascinated, and ‘slurped it like a noodle,’ one wonders if it is really much of a member at all. If Parent realises the funny side of his obsessive drives, he certainly doesn't let on.

The chief flaw of the novel is that the sections do not add up to any cumulative impression of the narrator's history. After each interval, he seems to have obliterated his past in favour of the here and now. The novel lacks any shapeliness, there are precious few correspondences between his busy experiences, and the rapidity with which characters are discarded means that we seldom care much about them once they stroll back into the imagination of their author. This is disappointing, because Paul Theroux, with two dozen books to his credit, is capable of writing first-rate fiction; but here something has gone badly wrong with his sense of proportion. One is reminded of Dr Ralph Kettel's opinion of Seneca (recorded by Aubrey): that he writes ‘as a Boare does pisse, scilicet by jirkes.’

Gary Krist (review date 17–24 July 1989)

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SOURCE: Krist, Gary. “Me, Myself, and I.” New Republic 201, nos. 3–4 (17–24 July 1989): 40–41.

[In the following review, Krist analyzes the relationship between character and theme in My Secret History.]

My Secret History, an enormous book of over 500 pages, belongs to an increasingly familiar genre of American fiction—the novel by a rich and famous writer about the life and loves of a similarly rich and famous writer. Such books have apparently become required rites of passage for many of our major authors on the road to serious celebrity. But Paul Theroux, in his 18th book of fiction, has managed to avoid most of the pitfalls of the genre. My Secret History is neither a self-congratulatory account of the tribulations of success nor a study of the writer as victim of his demanding, bovine public. Rather, it's what autobiographical fiction ought to be: a writer's stratagem for getting at the larger issues raised by his own life. The fact that Theroux's life involves plenty of interesting sex in exotic foreign climes ensures that this novel, like everything he writes, entertains even as it gathers weight.

Of course, writers are always telling us that books like this are less autobiographical than readers like to think. They are, however, invariably more autobiographical than writers like to let on. So, after the de rigueur disclaimer in the author's note, Theroux proceeds to introduce a character who is outwardly as similar to his creator as Nathan Zuckerman is to his. Andre Parent, like Theroux, is the product of a Catholic boyhood in Massachusetts; after college, he travels to Nyasaland (now Malawi) as a Peace Corps volunteer teacher, later moving to a school in Uganda. He leaves Africa, as Theroux did, after an incident in which he and his wife are attacked by a Ugandan mob. He becomes a writer in London, writes best-selling books about long train journeys, achieves wealth and fame, and ultimately becomes bicontinental, dividing his time and his toothbrushes between London and Cape Cod. Just about the only step in Theroux's life that Andre Parent does not repeat is publishing a long autobiographical novel about a writer with a French-sounding surname.

But those are the public events of Parent's life, and what most interests Theroux about his protagonist is his private life—or rather, his private lives. Very early on, Parent discovers the appeal of leading an independent existence (the secret history of the title) distinct from the one he presents to the world. That life is invariably, and energetically, erotic. As a young boy, for instance, he alternates between serving as an altar boy at a local Catholic church and fondling a girl (a half-Jewish girl, at that) in a quarry called the Sandpits. The next chapter finds Parent, now a college student on summer vacation, leading two more secret lives—one as the amorous pursuer of a bookstore clerk named Lucy and a second as the companion of a much older, much richer, and much more neurotic woman, Mrs. Mamalujian. When both encounters end badly, he retreats to Africa, where he again picks up the habit. He's a mild-mannered teacher of English by day, and a tireless lover of local African teenagers by night.

By this point in the novel, it has already become clear that Theroux has a familiar conceit in mind—the double life—and he uses it to shape the entire book. In fact, he clings to this formula so tenaciously in the following chapters that it begins to seem less like an intrinsic characteristic of Andre Parent and more like a clumsy structural device of Paul Theroux. “That was the way it went,” Parent writes during a London episode in which he is shuttling between life as a guest of noted writer S. Prasad (read V. S. Naipaul) and a secret love affair with an Englishwoman named Rosamond. “I spent my days with Prasad and my nights with Rosamond, one life turning within the other, and both spinning within me.” And some 30 pages later, in a different context:

I was not sure whether these different women … were more important and truer to the world than any of the stuff I wrote. Anyway, I suppressed it and kept it as my secret and so it was like a parallel history in private.

And 150 pages after that: “I was living two lives, and I knew I was a slightly different person with each woman. …”

This kind of recurrent motif, although it lends a sense of unity to what might otherwise be a rather diffuse story, at the same time threatens to give My Secret History an unfortunate flavor of textbook fiction. The reader is constantly tempted to frame an answer to that old test question: “Which of the following best describes the author's main idea?” One of Theroux's problems in the past has been his tendency to worry a concept—a theme or character trait or literary device—to within an inch of its life (remember Allie Fox's incessant harangues from Mosquito Coast, or the repeated connections of contamination and life, insulation and death, in O-Zone).

But Theroux is skillful enough here to prevent his theme from becoming overly mechanical or perfunctory. For one thing, his characters are much too vital to allow themselves to be subordinated to a literary device. Theroux excels at creating memorably idiosyncratic people—a troubled priest who plans boating excursions in the confessional, an insecure Indian tour guide who never stops talking, a Ghanian government functionary who has mastered the art of the perfectly insincere compliment.

More important, Theroux succeeds for the simple reason that he keeps amplifying the meaning and significance of Parent's erotic life as his character develops over the course of the novel. At times, his secret history is a retreat: a reflex of weakness, a way of escape, a substitute for engagement in any sphere. Later, it's a sort of game. In one excellent section, when Parent is living in Malawi during the interregnum between British rule and independence, the secret life becomes a rebellion of sorts, a way of living without labels. Parent, floating between incarnations as innocuous school director and oversexed, hard-drinking denizen of the African demimonde, enjoys the ultimate freedom. Like Malawi itself, he is an entity liberated from the confines of definition, a fugitive from what Theroux seems to regard as the imprisonment of identity.

In the last two chapters, Parent's peculiar mode of existence swerves in an unexpected direction, when he discovers that Jenny, his English wife, has been doing a bit of double living of her own. She takes a lover while Parent is off riding trains in Siberia, and when Parent finds out about it, he (with characteristic hypocrisy) loses control. He takes his revenge physically on the lover (in the most excruciating and hilarious scene in the book), but internalizes his revenge on Jenny. Finding himself in “a truer, colder, more imprisoning Siberia than the one I had left,” he banishes himself to an upstairs room, where he can write and mull over his pain in private. Jenny's affair “was my secret, and not revealing it was the source of my strength. I saw that I had lived my whole life that way, drawing energy from secrecy, and feeding my imagination on what I kept hidden.”

The chapter ends with a chastened Parent vowing to live a single-barreled life. (“Life could be so simple, and was happiest at its simplest.”) But one of Parent's most endearing traits is his inability to learn from his mistakes, and the final chapter opens with him shuttling between his wife in London and yet another new lover in Cape Cod. In a nimbly achieved episode, he takes both women on separate but identical trips to India, observing their reactions and his own reactions to them. And he has a realization: “I saw there was a third person. He was the observer, the witness to all this …, the one who stood aside and made the notes and wrote the books.”

And so My Secret History becomes, finally, and somewhat disappointingly, a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man. Andre Parent the writer joins Parent the public person and Parent the secret lover in that single, crowded identity. But he isn't an altogether welcome addition, there since he turns out to be that old self-important pill—the writer as uninvolved outsider. And that third person takes over the book in its last pages. Parent distances himself more and more from his own life. He begins to direct his passions inward; the world around him becomes something to be watched and tested rather than engaged.

This definition of the writer is common enough, but it often comes perilously close to a definition of the writer as moral imbecile. Writers too often let their status as observers excuse them from the responsibilities of participation in the world they observe. Parent certainly does; he seems blissfully unaware of the consequences of his amorous double life for anyone but himself. And it's not entirely clear whether Theroux is presenting Parent for our approval or our censure. Theroux, after all, is the man who once boasted (in People magazine, of all places): “My life is a paragon of non-involvement.”

But there are indications throughout that Theroux is more sensitive to the moral dimensions of Parent's secret history than Parent is himself. He presents some of the more repugnant by-products—messy abortions, betrayed trusts—of his character's supposed non-involvement. And when he shows Parent, a man who has tasted the humiliation of being cheated on, blithely embarking on yet another adulterous affair in the last chapter, he draws a necessary line between himself and his creation. For Andre Parent could not have written My Secret History. The detachment he cultivates, far from granting him a larger perspective, deprives him of the empathy required to realize that his erotic experiments are not conducted in a vacuum. And that absence of imagination ultimately makes him less interesting as a character.

It is this same empathy that Theroux demonstrates so convincingly in most of his fiction. Although his travel books have been criticized (not always unjustly) for their author's bad-tempered detachment from the people and places he encounters, his novels typically rise above that kind of limiting misanthropy. Theroux may have trouble doing justice to the complexity and worth of the characters he meets on railway trains, but he seems to have no such problem with the ones he imagines. My Secret History proves again that Theroux's world is a more complicated place when his imaginative sympathies, not just his powers of observation, are engaged.

Tom Wilhelmus (review date spring 1990)

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SOURCE: Wilhelmus, Tom. “Various Pairs.” Hudson Review 43, no. 1 (spring 1990): 147–54.

[In the following negative excerpt, Wilhelmus objects to the protagonist, plot, and tone of My Secret History.]

Much of the pleasure in preparing a chronicle like this lies in seeing how the various new books stack up against each other. In the current selection, for example, six have very conveniently chosen to arrange themselves in pairs. By treating them together, I hope to highlight some of their strengths and show how various writers tackle some important literary problems. Nonetheless, at the outset I want to say that I have not excluded any new work from this selection simply because it had no counterpart with which to compare it. Simply, the discovery of a book that refused to match up (a truly incomparable new novel or collection of short stories) would be a treasure much to be wished for and impossible to ignore.

Since I've made no effort to go point by point, my pairings do not really even provide the bases for comparison; rather I've put works together mostly with the hope that one will illuminate the other. The first two novels, for instance, share little beyond their use of autobiography. Although both are by accomplished novelists who live in England and who also happen to write nonfiction for a living, the two have few other traits in common.

Of the two writers, Paul Theroux is certainly the better known, and his new work, My Secret History, has generated great interest (as well as a spate of interviews and feature articles) because of the manner in which the story resembles the stages of Theroux's own development from his childhood in Boston, to his time with the Peace Corps in Africa and his years as a transatlantic man of letters. Like Theroux, the hero of the novel, Andre Parent, is a travel writer as well as an author and enjoys the friendship of a famous, eccentric writer with an Indian surname who lives in London. Still, Theroux insists that readers should not take these parallels too seriously. He has used autobiography, he says, only to expand upon and to imagine alternatives to the life he has actually lived. This explanation seems farfetched, however, since the novel's principal theme is about how a writer's secret longings can motivate his work, a topic in which we might reasonably expect Theroux to have an interest.

In fact, it is this coy irresolution that makes My Secret History, by the same author who wrote Half Moon Street,The Mosquito Coast, and The Family Arsenal, so disappointing. Is Andre Parent in any way an adumbration of his creator? In some ways he clearly is, but Theroux also spends so much time trying to distance himself from Parent that he nearly turns him into an anti-type, whose thoughts—including his thoughts on his own sources of inspiration—are both trivial and self-centered. He can only say that he was “happiest leading two lives,” a public one that is more or less ordinary and a “secret” one as a mindless, libidinous male primarily interested in sleeping with a long list of women of all races and ages on all the inhabited continents of the globe. Theroux devotes so much effort to showing just how shallow, selfish, sexist, racist, and horny Parent can be, that he fails to provide any alternatives, any contrasting or self-reflective consciousness, against which to measure this writer manqué.

Without such touchstones, the novel supports only negative conclusions: not merely that Andre Parent is a burned-out case but also that Theroux may actually credit a good deal of what he says—or worse, that My Secret History is a thinly-disguised roman à clef, moralizing at the same time that it is salacious. I would prefer to believe that this is not the case. I would prefer to believe that Theroux has not fully sorted out what he feels and that the decision to publish this book, a poorly plotted and inconclusive “mid-life” novel, was simply a mistake. My Secret History does have some occasional bright spots (the scenes of a Boston childhood are particularly evocative), but there are too many gaps in Parent's personal history and too much toneless and relaxed writing for it to be taken seriously.

Anita Brookner (review date 7 April 1990)

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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “… And Dangerous to Know.” Spectator (7 April 1990): 39.

[In the following review, Brookner argues that Chicago Loop represents “a clinical tour de force” for its relentlessly dispassionate portrayal of the psychopathic mind.]

[In Chicago Loop,] Parker Jagoda is mad, very mad, not in any active stereotypical way, but because he is wearied by the enormous confusions in his life, the greatest of which is his own imperfectly known personality. He is a successful architect, with a nice house, a wife, and a baby son, but what he likes to do is to advertise in the Personal Column of the Chicago Reader for a single white female. He is not sure why he wants this female, but it is not for sex, because sex, for Parker, is one big confusion. His wife, Barbara, is a fashion model and an admirer of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe: she is apparently immune to what is wrong with her husband, whom she meets, by appointment, in a downtown hotel. On these occasions she is disguised as a Girl Guide, or a nurse, or even as a man. When she is a man Parker calls himself Sharon and submits to nameless indignities. It would be interesting to know how their infant son was conceived.

Sharon is a talismanic name for Parker. There was a real Sharon once; she answered one of his advertisements, and he murdered her, biting her through the neck. For this, he knows he deserves punishment, but who will punish him? Will it be Ewa, who also answered one of his ads? She is attractively muscular, but has little personality, whereas Parker knows that whoever is appointed to the task of doing away with him must feel deeply. There must be humiliation, and then damage. Dressing as a woman—as Sharon, in fact—gives him easier access to damage. Men pursue him, use him, but never enough to satisfy him. Mostly they are frightened or repelled by him, by his eagerness, his girlishness, his willingness. Finally he realises that no one hates him enough to punish him as he deserves to be punished. He has to do the job himself.

I rather wished he had done it on the first page, when he was nearly run over by a bus. This is the cleverest and most exhaustive picture of a psychopath since Patricia Highsmith's Ripley, yet in comparison Ripley seems almost good-natured, playful, jovial, even. Parker Jagoda is utterly humourless. He is also affectless; in the many episodes of pain and humiliation which he engineers he appears not to know what is happening, not only to himself but to his partners. Passive in both male and female roles, he seems not only affectless but sexless, and yet sex is the business of his days and his nights, which he spends in bars or simply wandering round Chicago in 90-degree heat. Eventually he holes up in the real Sharon's old room, watching game-shows on television, with the radio on at the same time.

This last detail I found particularly horrifying, although it will already have been apparent that this is not an easy read. Paul Theroux's desire to create his own psychopath is, in its way, heartlessly successful, and this success makes the novel both compelling and obnoxious. Theroux is never less than horribly clever at evoking hideously hot nights, the glare and noise of bars, run-down neighbourhoods, the insults of men. His cleverness extends to the way in which he has drained his style of all emotion, as if he were merely keeping on the track of Parker, without adding any comment of his own. Brand names voluptuously abound: after being a health freak for six months, Parker succumbs to junk food, which he eats compulsively, throwing up regularly after each bout.

Also remarkable is Theroux's grasp of the psychotic mind, its ignorance of duty or obligation, its desire for both destruction and self-destruction. What distinguishes this mind-set from any other is the fact that there is no sense of closure or completion after an act. In the same way the novel proceeds in a tone of highly-strung monotony, with no relief at the end of one chapter and no anticipation at the beginning of another.

The novel is undoubtedly obscene—Mapplethorpe's photographs, I suspect, played some part in its genesis—but it is notable principally as an act of imitation, almost of empathy. This is, in itself, remarkable. But I shall look on Ripley with a much kinder eye in the future, knowing that Patricia Highsmith has—so far—shielded me from the worst. Paul Theroux has no such qualms. He has produced a clinical tour de force.

Mary Warner Marien (review date 19 June 1992)

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SOURCE: Marien, Mary Warner. “Travels by Kayak, Pony, and Plane.” Christian Science Monitor (19 June 1992): 13.

[In the following excerpt, Marien compares Theroux's mental state during his Pacific tour to his descriptions of the scenery in The Happy Isles of Oceania.]

Paul Theroux's latest excursion, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific, reads like Gulliver's Travels—if Lemuel Gulliver had packed a portable kayak and a failed marriage on his journeys.

Just as Jonathan Swift propelled his protagonist on trips whose ulterior purpose was to reveal the flawed human condition, so too Theroux paddles the Pacific surveying life on its numerous islands only to discover how culturally bankrupt this cherished paradise of the Western imagination has become.

Unlike Theroux, of course, Gulliver was a fiction. Yet to an appreciable degree in this book, Theroux the writer has concocted Theroux the preoccupied, dour, recently separated traveler—a character who could have stepped out of one of his novels like The Mosquito Coast or Half Moon Street.

The personal sadness of Theroux the traveler drenches The Happy Isles of Oceania like a tropical downpour. One senses that the tale's bleakness and its literary ending owe as much to the prevailing winds of the author-character's perspective as to the defiled landscape.

Paddling around 51 Pacific worlds apart (such as Tonga and the Trobriands), as he did in 1991, Theroux expected to find an assortment of earthly utopias, and a measure of succor to boot. Instead, the scenery loomed as a grim metaphor for personal and planetary decline.

Everywhere lagoons were littered with trash, beaches blemished with raw sewage, and villages so dependent on foreign aid that they have largely forgone foraging and gardening for the dubious pleasure of consuming canned luncheon meat and pea soup. No habitat was too isolated not to have an electric generator devoted solely to playing Rambo videos.

Only in Hawaii, when the sky darkened during an eclipse, did the gloom on Theroux's psyche lighten. Given that more indigenous species of birds and plants have been driven to extinction in the 50th state than in any other place on earth, one is confounded by its potential for such epiphanies.

Alexander Frater (review date 21 June 1992)

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SOURCE: Frater, Alexander. “Curmudgeon in a Canoe.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 June 1992): 1, 8.

[In the following positive review, Frater praises the insights, accessibility, and humor of The Happy Isles of Oceania.]

Paul Theroux's almost Napoleonic progress across the planet has taken him through Europe and Asia (The Great Railway Bazaar), China (Riding the Iron Rooster) and the Americas (The Old Patagonian Express). His latest travel dispatches [The Happy Isles of Oceania] are filed from an area which, almost uniquely for him, is entirely devoid of trains. The islands of Oceania must be negotiated by other means, and, this time, his chosen mode of transport is the canoe.

Actually, it's a collapsible kayak, seagoing and German-built, and whenever he flies to a new island group, he paddles as far from the trappings of civilization as time and tide allow. He thus lands, and lives, on islands few outsiders ever get to see (a tent, sleeping bag and stove, together with plentiful supplies of noodles and green tea, accompany him everywhere). He visits villages, asks questions—in Pidgin, where necessary; Wonem dispela? What's this?—and notes everything down: customs, language, legends, tribal lore, local flora and fauna, the lot.

But the journeys he made for this huge and exhilarating book were not made for the book alone. There is a personal dimension to the enterprise born of despair. On the first page we learn his marriage has failed and his doctor has warned he might have cancer. (It is a false alarm.) On the last, watching the total eclipse of the sun in Hawaii, he experiences a moment of happiness that is almost transcendental. So his traverse of the southern ocean was also therapeutic, a journey intended to soothe, heal, clarify—and renew.

Early on, he has “a clear recollection of the London I had left. … I saw people—writers—talking on television programs, and partygoers smoking, and snatching drinks from a waitress's tray, and shrieking at each other. … ‘Bullshit!’ I yelled into the wind. … I felt I would never go back.”

Whatever it was he sought in Oceania, the Trobriands, or “Isles of Love,” seemed a good place to start. Fortuitously, his arrival coincides with the annual Yam Festival, a period of unbridled sexual license during which the women make all the running—“‘The girls and the women just rush at you,’” Theroux was told, “‘They grab you anywhere.’”

But it turns out to be a nasty business, pagan and brutish; gradually his beachcombing idyll begins to sour. Calling at a remote atoll to do some bird-watching, he is approached by a gang of vicious, spear-toting kids who threaten to kill him. Shaken, he becomes aware of ghosts, magic superstitions, a looming undercurrent of violence. And finally he paddles away, acknowledging that the Arcadian vision he carries around in his head bears little relation to the haunted, menacing and unstable little societies he has found there.

And that, really, sets the agenda for what is to come. The Oceanians, their old innocence replaced by suspicion and introspection, are generally unwelcoming and—when he gets to Polynesia—idle and overweight to boot.

But here and there, traditional tasks are still being pursued. In the Solomons men dig in the sand for the giant eggs of megapode birds; hundreds are harvested daily to be sold or turned into enormous omelets. In Fiji a group of wild-eyed arsonists are single-mindedly burning down their island. On Tanna, in Vanuatu, members of the Cargo Cult sit around waiting for their American god, Jon Frum, to ship in unending supplies of dollars and consumer durables.

Jon Frum hasn't got to Tanna because he is too busy handing out dollars and durables in American Samoa. And the folks there, entirely subsidized by generous handouts from Uncle Sam, demonstrate what will happen if Frum ever heads on down to Melanesia. American Samoa has become a garbage dump; junk even overflows into the lagoons, paving them with discarded drink cans (and dead coral). Their remarkable free-money economy, Theroux reports, has turned a race of warriors and master navigators into a tubby, profligate people shoving supermarket carts full of junk food.

In terms of obesity, though, few Samoans can challenge Tonga's vast 308-pound monarch. When Theroux has his audience he notes that Taufa'ahua Tupou IV wears a black bombazine skirt and has a speech defect. Displaying a rather slushy way with consonants, His Majesty tells Theroux of his plans for a confederation of Polynesian states—many of which, of course, are on Theroux's itinerary as he travels steadily east, through the Samoas, on to the Cook Islands, Tahiti, the lovely Marquesas, Easter Island and, finally, Hawaii.

Theroux's style throughout is confrontational. What's going on here? Who are you? Do you eat dogs? (Yupela kaikai dok?) Can I camp on your beach? Yet, though it records a journey that apparently brought him some measure of peace, it's a curiously ill-tempered book.

People, places, whole nations incur his displeasure. He thinks the Tongans arrogant, uncivil, xenophobic, generally offensive. He hates Australians and New Zealanders. (The latters' governor-general, Dame Cath Tizard, is judged at a dinner party to be “rather silly and shallow and unimaginative, as well as bossy, vain, and cunning, but principled in a smug and meddling way. A New Zealander to her fingertips. …”) He loathes the French—“among the most self-serving, manipulative, trivial-minded, obnoxious, cynical, and corrupting nations on the face of the earth.” And so on, right across the International Date Line, all the way to Honolulu.

Occasionally, camped on some isolated atoll, tucking into noodles and green tea, contentment is experienced and, here and there, engaging characters met; generally, though, he frets. Perhaps he needed more time. There is a welcoming, generous and beguiling side to life on many islands, though it won't be felt by those in a hurry; finding “paradise” is just a happy combination of circumstances, patience and luck. I last glimpsed it, or something very similar, at a child's birthday party on the hauntingly beautiful Marquesan island where Gauguin lies buried.

But Theroux is relentless in his quest. He doesn't miss a trick. His energy and industry are awesome, his curiosity boundless. Noting a fisherman off a Vanuatu island, he paddles up, lashes their canoes together and questions him closely about his dialect—“What do you call this? What is that?”—noting down linguistic similarities with other groups. Everything goes into those notebooks, every shade and nuance of the trip. The result is perceptive, terribly readable and wickedly funny.

Since he traveled about the groups by air, there is little sense of their isolation from each other, the huge distances between. Yet that isolation makes them what they are. It also produces a need to close ranks against outsiders; territorial invasion remains part of their ancestral memory.

With its groups linked by chapter headings rather than connecting journeys, Theroux's book has an anthologized feel, a collection of long magazine pieces. Yet, collectively, they powerfully evoke the region and add up to a brilliant and riveting read—hardly surprising, since they're crafted by the finest practitioner of travel writing around today.

Ronald Wright (review date 31 July 1992)

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SOURCE: Wright, Ronald. “Having His Kayak and Beating It.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4661 (31 July 1992): 11.

[In the following review, Wright compliments the authentic details and candid tone of The Happy Isles of Oceania, praising it as one of Theroux's best works.]

Paul Theroux once said in an interview that it is hard to write travel books about nice places, because “there's no subject there.” And true to this nostrum he has sought out places that are unpleasant or, more often, has made them appear so by casting a jaundiced light. His formula is simple: hate everything other people like, and like everything that other people hate. That way the writer stands out from the crowd. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with this kind of writing: Theroux's alembicated travels, told by a peevish and insouciant narrator, belong to a tradition which goes back to Alexander Kinglake and Laurence Sterne. But Sterne and Kinglake confined themselves to one or two journeys in print. After four or five long trips with Theroux, the snide raconteur has begun to bore. I suspected that The Happy Isles of Oceania (to be published in the UK in September) would be predictably ironic and that the folding kayak used for the paddling touted on the cover, would be more of a literary than a flotational device.

But this new book is a delightful surprise. Having broken up with his wife of many years and put away his train set, Theroux is less sure of himself, more exposed, off the rails no less; he is therefore a much better traveller than usual. Instead of shooting dismissive glances from a carriage window while his nose is buried in a minor classic, he gets out on the water and the hills. The collapsible kayak is an ideal vehicle for curiosity and solitude; it is also a good conversation piece. Though he flies the long hops and sometimes rents a car, he does plenty of messing about in his boat. It takes him away from ports and roads—which, like railways, are the least otherly of foreign parts—and carries him into reaches and backwaters, pockets of strangeness, mystery, danger. He bucks ugly seas; he camps out in the mud and mosquitoes; he feels the salt on his skin and the stars “like dazzling smoke” on his teary eyes.

Personal loss tugs at the book like an undertow. “Where is your wife?” everyone asks, and Theroux can't answer. He is a man without a family among people to whom family is everything. If there is irony in the title of Happy Isles, it is private and elegaic; the book shows a writer letting go of his gimmicks and a man letting go of his life. It is a farewell to what has been and, in a way, a long letter to Anne Theroux.

This personal candour brings an authentic sense of place. I did not recognize the South America I know in Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express; but when he lands on Pacific islands which I have visited, his reports ring true. He has done his homework, reading histories and ethnographies instead of Victorian novels. Though he makes no claim to be an expert, he is aware of cultural and political complexities. In Fiji, for example, he allows that the political crisis is “much more complicated [than] simply a standoff between Fijians and Indians,” and perceives that the two races, though neither will admit it, need each other. In Tahiti, the Tuamotus, and the Marquesas—French colonies all—he aims some Melvillean wrath at France's mission civilisatrice: “just a short trip to any French territory in the Pacific is enough to convince even the most casual observer that the French are among the most self-serving, manipulative … cynical, and corrupting nations on the face of the earth.” This is no parody. Outraged by the atomic mess at Moruroa and the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, Theroux means it. With such targets he has no need for the cheap shots at fellow ticket-holders that often passed for comment in his earlier books. Instead, he meets a fascinating range of locals—Aboriginals, beach-combers, Seventh Day Adventist Trobrianders, the King of Tonga—and while he does not spare them, he does not disfigure them with his trademark vitriol. It is as if he has listened to his critics. Perhaps he listened to the man who, early in Happy Isles, shambled drunkenly towards him at a literary dinner in Fremantle roaring: “You're a wanker, mate! … a fucking wanker!” A vengeful travelling companion from the Trans-Siberian express?

The journey is ambitious, beginning in New Zealand and Australia, which Theroux calls “Meganesia” so as to include some very land-locked land. He covers much of Melanesia and almost all of Polynesia, even Easter Island. If this had been the old Theroux who perversely scorned Tikal in Guatemala and the Inca monuments of Cuzco, he would have gone to Easter Island and found the disco more interesting than the statues. But he haunts the great monoliths from land and sea, judging them “artistic masterpieces as well as engineering marvels.” Yet his Polynesia is also warty with its modern ills: Rambo films, porn videos, rubbish in the lagoon, and Mormon churches that look “like Dairy Queen franchises.”

Occasional inconsistencies and repetitions give the book a spontaneous, rough-cut feel of having been written along the way. Theroux even allows himself some uncharacteristic slips: a forest at dusk in New Zealand “was like a walk through an enchanted forest, the trees literally as old as the hills.” But against that infelicity must be set this wonderful aphorism on Polynesian history: “The people went from island to island taking their whole culture with them, until they found a happy island, and spread it all out, like a picnic that would last until the end of the world.” This is Paul Theroux's best travel book since The Great Railway Bazaar, and possibly his best ever. Certainly it is his most charming, candid, and adventurous.

Douglas Kennedy (review date 8 October 1993)

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SOURCE: Kennedy, Douglas. “Regular Guy.” New Statesman & Society 6, no. 273 (8 October 1993): 38.

[In the following review, Kennedy offers a positive assessment of Millroy the Magician.]

“My name is Millroy and I am a messenger. I was once so fat I was imprisoned in the darkness of my body—trapped in my own fatness. Every day was living hell, and I suffered just like you. But the Lord spoke to me saying, ‘Change your ways, fatso!’ I was reborn and assumed the shape of this body you see before you.”

To anyone familiar with the bizarre frontiers of born-again American Christianity, this “testimonial” from Paul Theroux's terrific new novel, Millroy the Magician, probably sounds like some absurd parody of televangelistic hard-sell. After all, though the Jimmy Swaggerts and Jim Bakkers promised anyone two box seats in heaven in exchange for cold cash, they surely didn't offer their flock divine intervention when it came to shedding a few pounds from their torso?

Well, actually … they did. Because many a televangelist peddled Son-of-Man SlimFast programmes, where putting your faith in the love of Jesus would undoubtedly stop you from eating three Big Macs and five Mars Bars at lunchtime. And when I toured the American south in the summer of 1988, researching my book about the Christian fundamentalist movement (In God's Country), I did spend a day observing a Christian weight-watching clinic on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. A quintet of exceptionally corpulent souls joined hands and asked God for the strength to resist wolfing down that pint of Haagen-Dazs-and-cream before bedtime.

So there's absolutely nothing far-fetched about Millroy—Theroux's latest evangelical madman on a mission to debunk the gimcrackery of American life—when he announces to his vast small-screen audience that he has the spiritual/dietary answer to constipation. He can ensure that all citizens open their bowels: “I can make America regular again.”

Millroy is no mere advocate of spiritual high-fibre. He's also a professional conjurer who graduates from food-oriented sleights-of-hand in a New England carnival to national prominence as a diet-obsessed televangelical cult leader with his very own set of acolytes (The Sons and Daughters), his hour-of-power television show (The Day One Programme) and even his very own chain of spiritually correct restaurants (The Day One Diners). And Millroy assures his flock that if they follow his regime, not only will their bowels open with startling regularity, but they will also live for 200 years.

“His bowels got into the newspapers,” says Jilly, the waif-like young girl whom Millroy adopts as a side-kick and then transforms into his long-lost son (an intriguing bit of evangelical cross-dressing). “His bowels got into magazines, people called the diner asking about his bowels, photographers showed up asking about Millroy's picture. Even though he would not talk to the press and refused to pose for pictures, the programme racked up more viewers. He knew they were people who hoped he would talk about his bowels again, which he did …”

Millroy, however, is no outlandish cult monster, no graduate of the Jim Jones/David Koresh school of pious kamikaze pilot, even though he is eventually exposed as a first-class fraud. Rather, he puts one in mind of Charlie Fox, the misguided visionary “hero” of Theroux's best novel to date, The Mosquito Coast. Fox flees the fast-food ethos of 1980s America and attempts to build his own little new-fangled promised land in the Central American bush.

Millroy is yet another utopia merchant: someone who preaches a doctrine of organic rebirth in a society gorging itself to death on synthetic crap. But Theroux is canny enough to avoid turning this companion-piece to his earlier novel into a blatant satire on the grotesqueness of American consumerism and religious charlatanism. Rather, Millroy the Magician is a tautly crafted exploration of that most dangerous of American pastimes: personal reinvention.

Theroux—a New Englander, born in the state where the doctrine of social and spiritual perfectibility tested in the New World—has written yet another bleaky funny allegory about a society desperately in search of a panacea that will cure its multiple ills. Life, liberty and the pursuit of unblocked colon: what more do you want from a country?

Tom Shone (review date 8 October 1993)

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SOURCE: Shone, Tom. “Suspiciously Wholesome.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4723 (8 October 1993): 26.

[In the following negative review, Shone argues that Millroy the Magician is inferior to Theroux's earlier novel The Mosquito Coast.]

When, at the start of Paul Theroux's new novel [Millroy the Magician], the eponymous protagonist asks “how can you take any religion seriously if it leaves out nutrition?,” keen Theroux readers will nod in recognition: one of his favourite subjects is on the menu again. Food has played an increasingly large role in his fiction. What started with Allie Fox's tirades against junk food in The Mosquito Coast, continued with the scrupulous food faddism of Doctor Slaughter and reached a violent nadir in Chicago Loop, in which a psychotic real estate agent bites a woman to death, has now come full circle.

Millroy is, like Fox, one of Theroux's funky evangelists with the gift of the gab; a magician turned evangelist, whose declared aim is to make the American nation's bowels “sound like a harp,” and, by a careful reinterpretation of the Bible as a vegetarian recipe book, rid America of “weenie worship.” Millroy himself is too busy preaching his creed to want to fill his mouth with hot dogs. Rising from his lowly fairground roots to a position as a children's presenter on prime-time television, he is finally able to realize his dream and spread the word through an alternative fast food chain, The Day One Diner, where people can feast on such sacred snacks as “Ezekiel Bread,” “Nahum's Fig Bars,” and “Promised Land Lentils,” and then deposit them in the cleanest rest-rooms in the country.

Millroy the Magician is called, rather worryingly, a “companion piece” to The Mosquito Coast—worrying because a novel as accomplished and fully formed as The Mosquito Coast hardly needs a kid brother tugging at its sleeve for attention. Both books concern wild and whirling autodidacts—part tragic heroes, part quacks—who seek to reverse the clock and jerrybuild a contemporary Eden for themselves. But whereas Allie Fox saw salvation in South America, Millroy—a patriot to the point of xenophobia—starts his religion in his own backyard. Rather more crucially, Theroux has swapped continents stylistically as well: for his foray South he used the sturdy timber of the North American adventure novel; here, he employs the wild twinings of South American magic realism. Millroy's acts of magic—conjuring rats from his enemies' mouths, turning them into glasses of water and drinking them—are used sparingly, but introducing even one act of real magic into a book changes the grain of the writing as surely as a hinge will angle a door. Theroux seems unprepared for the full anti-gravitational swings that such a style needs, and the whimsicality of the novel seems a little forced.

Millroy's rise is charted by the book's thirteen-year-old narrator, a waif called Jilly Farina, who, when Millroy charms her at her local Boston fair, is only too happy to leave her drunken father and trailer home behind for a life as Millroy's companion and assistant. Although he dresses her up in a sequined cape, high heels and red lipstick, and then asks her to assume the identity of a young boy, Millroy, she tells us, never lays a hand on her, despite scurrilous tabloid rumours to the contrary. It's the first false note of many in the novel: Theroux is a writer who usually sees kinky sexual activity behind every keyhole, and it feels alien to have him write with such willed naivety.

You can see his reasons, as the numerous mentions of Elmer Gantry make clear; we have quite enough hypocritical preachers in fiction already (Theroux added to the stockpile himself with his Reverend Spellgood in The Mosquito Coast), but the book's insistence on Millroy's innocence feels more like the avoidance of a cliché than the pursuit of a truth. Complications ensue: for one thing, it turns Jilly's character into a function of the plot, given to pre-emptive motive résumés, such as: “It made me wonder what I was doing in a trailer park in Buzzards Bay on a Saturday morning dressed as a boy with a big fat middle-aged magician who was standing upside-down on his bald head and watching a children's show on TV.”

Millroy the Magician fails where The Mosquito Coast succeeded: as a rite-of-passage novel. Allie Fox's transformation from inspirational father into glowering lunatic was filtered through the eyes of his son: at first adoring, then unwilling to acknowledge the unpalatable truth, and finally hateful. Jilly, however, remains a rather transparent transcriber of Millroy's increasingly wearing pontifications on bowel movements and food.

Sam Staggs (essay date 7 March 1994)

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SOURCE: Staggs, Sam. “Paul Theroux: This Time around, the Protean Writer Pens a Novel with a Vegetarian Protagonist.” Publishers Weekly 241, no. 10 (7 March 1994): 48–49.

[In the following essay, Staggs provides an overview of Theroux's life and career upon the publication of Millroy the Magician, incorporating Theroux's comments on his travel writing and publishing history.]

A character in one of Paul Theroux's 16 novels says, “People don't know they're awful. They think they're nice.” This statement could almost stand as an epigraph to everything Theroux has written—with the exception of the protagonist of his new novel, Millroy the Magician, just out from Random House, whose eponymous hero is a present-day messiah of low-fat food and clean living. And even Theroux thinks he's nice.

Millroy, a sort of metaphysical Mr. Rogers, crosses America magically transforming, without benefit of kitchen, “big brown spuds into mashed potatoes, flour into bread, and milk into yogurt and then into fat-free ice cream,” and preaching Vegetarianism on TV the way certain televangelists push family values. In the past, reviewers have compared Theroux's novels to Graham Greene's; Millroy the Magician may remind some readers of the Frugal Gourmet.

What, we ask, lightened Theroux's dark vision, taking him from sinners in quest of redemption (as in Chicago Loop, 1990) to a protagonist launching a chain of diners that specialize in foods mentioned in the Bible? “It has something to do with middle age,” says the author, who, like Millroy, is a vegetarian. Theroux, briefly in New York, divides his time between homes on Cape Cod and Oahu. “Millroy the Magician is about an obsession with food, diet and American culture. It's my own life, in a sense, writ large and embroidered upon.”

Theroux, 52, is owlishly handsome. His accent combines the vowels of Massachusetts, where he grew up, with those of London, where he lived for many years. “I used to write about people who drank, smoked opium and the like,” he says, sounding alternately like JFK and Cary Grant. “Then, while writing The Mosquito Coast [1982], I got interested in health. Allie Fox, the protagonist, has plenty of censorious things to say about the American diet. I gave up smoking when I finished the book.”

Theroux, as well-known for his travel books as for his novels, doesn't rhapsodize over exotic foods as some travel writers do. On the contrary, he's more likely to emphasize the squeamish detail, as in this vignette from Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China (1988): “There had been a bucket of dead eels next to the hopper in the toilet cubicle. I had glimpsed the creatures in the middle of the night. That was memorable—and a good thing, too, because the next morning I went to the dining car and asked what was on the menu, and the chef said, ‘Eels!’”

This kind of bilious comedy is typical of Theroux's travel writing. Never lyrical, he has been accused of starting out in a bad mood and staying in it for the duration of a trip. “You could say the same about almost any comic writer,” he counters. “In the very essence of comedy is a kind of grumpiness, where irony sounds like sarcasm and sarcasm like aggression. Sometimes my irony is taken literally by a literal-minded public.

“For example, in a crowded bus in Germany, I once said to a large man who was elbowing an old lady, ‘Why don't you knock her over while you're at it?’ He said indignantly, ‘What! You think I'm trying to knock her over? Of course I won't.’ The man thought I was being a brute. Germans, of course, tend not to have a sense of irony, but sometimes neither do readers—or reviewers—of my books. So, when I travel, I don't look for trouble, but I don't want to make things seem better than they are.”

Jan Morris, Theroux's friend and fellow travel writer, recently said (at a dinner in Honolulu attended by Theroux and others): “None of us wants Paul to be cheerier than he is. If he's rude in writing about a place, that's why we read him.” Morris, of course, recognizes the journalistic purpose behind this “rudeness.”

Theroux explains, “It's amazing how prophetic you can be in travel writing if you describe a place as it is. For example, I was in China for 12 months—mid-1986 to mid-1987—for Riding the Iron Rooster. I saw manifestations of the student democracy movement: demonstrations, clashes with police. I wrote about this in my book, and when it was published some people cried out, ‘He's too hard on the Chinese, doesn't seem to like them, great trading partner, reforms …’ Two years later students were shot down in Tiananmen Square. If I had presented the Chinese as I wanted them to be, and not as I saw them, I would have looked like a fool.”

While Theroux's fiction speaks in many voices from various points of view, the “I” of his travel writing is Theroux himself and not that of a literary persona. “I'm just reporting on the trip,” he says. “A travel book is like a series of letters home.”

If he wrote just a few letters from abroad to each member of his family he would have the makings of a fair-sized travel book, for Theroux is one of seven children and the father of two grown sons. Almost half the Theroux clan are writers. Besides Paul, there are older brother Alexander, a novelist, and younger brother Peter, a travel writer. Paul's son Louis is a staff writer for Spy magazine. (The writer Phyllis Theroux is Paul's former sister-in-law.)

Born in Medford, Mass., a Boston suburb, Theroux attended the University of Massachusetts. Shortly after graduation in 1963, he joined the Peace Corps and made his first long journey: to Malawi in East Africa, where he taught English for two years. Then, in late in 1965, he was arrested for spying and convicted within hours. His sentence was relatively light: he was escorted to the airport and put on the only plane leaving Malawi that day. (Theroux tells his side of the story in an essay included in his 1985 book, Sunrise with Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries 1964–1984.)

He returned to the U.S. for a brief visit, during which he was questioned by the State Department and expelled from the Peace Corps. But Theroux bears no ill will. “The Peace Corps was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. And the unfortunate African contretemps was not entirely his fault. Though politically naive, he was also double-crossed when articles he had written in good faith for African periodicals were discovered to have been actually commissioned by the West German equivalent of the CIA. Caught between the displeasure of his host country and that of the U.S. State Department, Theroux was a convenient scapegoat. His was an uncomfortable, untenable position: an American citizen being used as a tool of a former European colonial power on the African continent.

Immediately after his expulsion from the Peace Corps, Theroux returned to Africa, this time to Uganda, where he became a lecturer in English at Makerere University in Kampala. While there, he met and married Anne Castle, another teacher, from whom he is now divorced.

In 1968 Theroux left Africa and went to Singapore, where he again taught English (at the University of Singapore) for three years. In the meantime, he maintained a flourishing second career as novelist, having published five novels between 1967 and 1971. Deciding that he couldn't continue in both professions, Theroux resigned from his teaching job to pursue writing full-time. Since then he has averaged one book a year, as well as hundreds of stories, essays and reviews.

Theroux first gained widespread attention with Saint Jack (1972), a novel that director Peter Bogdanovich turned into a movie in 1979 based on a screenplay that Theroux helped write.

His next novel, The Black House (1974), was a gothic tale set in England, where Theroux had taken up residence. This novel has gained a certain para-literary fame in Britain as the manuscript that Theroux dropped off at the office of his publisher, Hamish Hamilton, on his way to Victoria Station to catch the train for his now-famous transcontinental journey through the Soviet Union and the Far East—in other words, The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia. Theroux gives the date of manuscript delivery, and the start of his travel-writing career, as September 19, 1973.

Though travelogues are not considered hot commercial properties, The Great Railway Bazaar was a bestseller in the U.S. and in Britain. A typical review praised Theroux for having transformed “what was clearly a long, ultimately tedious journey by train … into a singularly entertaining book.” Since then, a new travel book by Theroux has come to be something of an event. The biggest of these events have been The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas (1979); The Kingdom By the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain (1983); Riding the Iron Rooster (1988); and The Happy Isles at Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (1992).

Meanwhile, such novels as The Family Arsenal (1976) and Picture Palace (1978) had helped to turn Theroux into a literary industry, with headquarters at Houghton Mifflin. “They published my books for nearly 20 years,” he says, “from Waldo, my first novel (1967), through the mid 1980s.” Asked why he left, Theroux says, “I wanted to see what the rest of the publishing world was like. I also decided to have different publishers for fiction and nonfiction.”

He decided on Putnam for nonfiction (though they initially published one of his novels, the 1986 O-Zone), and Random House for fiction.

Theroux says that he and Houghton Mifflin parted on good terms, “at least as much as you can.” When he decided to leave, he recalls emphasizing to his longtime publisher that “I have been a good and faithful employee of this firm, and I've generated a lot of revenue in which we've all shared. I haven't driven as hard a bargain as many authors.” As an example, Theroux cites the “very healthy cut” that Houghton Mifflin received from his reprint sales—“up to 50٪.”

One of Theroux's warmest memories of his years with Houghton Mifflin is editor Joyce Hartman. “She cared about me and my career,” he says, “and she also replied to letters. She wrote interesting ones and she inspired the same. I believe the best editors have been letter writers and not telephoners.”

In addition to two publishers, Theroux has two agents: Andrew Wylie, who handles fiction and backlist; and for nonfiction, the author's brother Eugene Theroux, a lawyer in Washington who is an expert in Sino-American trade.

Asked to compare sales of his various books in the U.S. and Britain, Theroux says, “in Britain my hardcovers have good to modest sales, while my paperbacks—brought out there by Penguin—sell enormously. At virtually any bookseller's in the U.K., if you look on the Penguin shelf you'll find anywhere from 10 to 20 of my books, going all the way back to the 1960s. It's the same wherever English paperbacks are sold—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa. But not in the United States.”

In this country, according to Theroux, “there seems to be a total lack of interest in the backlist. Several of my books are in print in hardcover, a few in paperback, but not many. In Britain, on the other hand, virtually all of my books are in print either in hardcover or in Penguin paperbacks. It seems to me that an innovative American publisher would look at my backlist and decide, ‘We're not going to let these go; we'll do a uniform edition, have Theroux write new introductions, and make money from them.’ The fact that publishers don't do this, with my books and those of many other writers, indicates philistinism, laziness, and lack of entrepreneurship.”

In addition to novels, travel books and screenplays, Theroux has written criticism (V. S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Works, 1972), plays and poetry. But some of his best work appears in his four short-story collections: Sinning with Annie and Other Stories (1972); The Consul's File (1977); World's End and Other Stories (1980); and The London Embassy (1982). Even his briefest stories represent intense emotional journeys, as he crosses the border from comedy to tragedy, from innocence to awareness to satire, with a magician's ease. It's in this form that Theroux's many fictional voices are in perfect harmony. His short stories are arias, his novels recitative.

Terry Tempest Williams (review date 20 March 1994)

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SOURCE: Williams, Terry Tempest. “The Bible as Radical Diet Plan.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 March 1994): 8.

[In the following review, Williams offers a generally positive assessment of Millroy the Magician, but finds the novel's imagery and style overbearing.]

“My name is Millroy and I am a messenger,” he said.

He leaned his wide bright face into the bigness of the TV screen.

“I was once so fat I was imprisoned in the darkness of my body—trapped in my own fatness. Every day was a living hell, and I suffered just like you. But the Lord spoke to me saying, ‘Change your ways, Fatso!’”

So begins one of Millroy the Magician's evangelical diatribes in Paul Theroux's new novel [Millroy the Magician]. This is a book about food, religion and the manipulation of power in America. It is not altogether appetizing.

In Theroux's classic novel, The Mosquito Coast, Allie Fox had given up on American culture and moved his family to the jungles of Central America to begin anew. Millroy, however, is committed to social change at home through diet. Millroy the Magician is well drawn, a dangerous and irresistible prophet. His medium is television. His approach is religious. His temple becomes “The Day One Diner.”

The story begins at the Barnstable County Fair. The narrator is Jilly Farina, a 14-year-old girl under 5-feet-2 who wears Size 4[frac12] sneakers. Her mother is dead. Her father is a drunk and she lives with her abusive grandmother, Gaga. Jilly left home to find a little magic. Millroy changes her life, and before she realizes what has happened she is his assistant Annette dressed in a slinky bathing suit, a sequined cape, wearing red lipstick and high heels. (This book will make any feminist or children's rights advocate cringe.) “We were lost souls, though we didn't know that until we met. Now we are one complex organism,” Millroy tells Jilly.

Twenty-four hours into their new relationship, Millroy makes an elephant disappear, pulls an eagle from the folds of the American flag, then privately pokes a rubber tube up his nose in order to pump sludge out of his stomach to see how his food is digesting. “People are obsessed by the way they look,” he says. “But that's the exterior. What about the inside, which is much more important? You have to know the condition of your stomach and gut.” Millroy the Magician has one agenda: to make America regular. “Bowels are more important than vowels.”

Paul Theroux's critique of America through our dietary in-take is a provocative one. Our panoply of fast-food outlets, from McDonalds to Taco Bell to Bub City Crabshack to Carmina Burrito, the frequency of our visits and our propensity to “eat and run” have a direct effect on the quality and thoughtfulness of our lives. “Every meal should be a spiritual experience.” Millroy tells his television congregation.

We can believe but who has the time?

As readers, we get Millroy's point almost immediately, but then we must suffer through page after page of endless stomach pumpings and intestinal preachings, arduous bouts on the toilet and his impassioned plea to produce “at least two pounds of waste a day.” All these gastronomic details are folded into a religious-right narrative with Millroy gaining celebrity status as America's nutritional preacher. He develops enemies. Other jealous zealots from other TV-evangelist programs believe he is fouling the Bible by plugging it as “America's cookbook.” Eventually, they run him out of town and try to have him arrested on charges of tax evasion and child abuse.

Enter Jilly Farina once again. Millroy disguises her as his step-son, Alex. He relies on him/her for his personal salvation. What unfolds is a story line that resembles the evolution of a cult, with Millroy the Magician as its charismatic leader. Millroy opens the Day One Diner and staffs it with dozens of “Day One Sons and Daughters.” They become both disciples and missionaries, transforming fat Americans into health conscious citizens by serving them Ezekiel bread, carrot juice and bean cakes.

Paul Theroux has a good eye for characters. His perceptions as the astute traveler serve him well in fiction. Jilly Farina as the vulnerable devotee of Millroy is not only sympathetic but empathetic in her understanding of her mentor. Millroy is as complex and paradoxical as his magic. On one hand he produces doves and on the other, a sliced index finger that he commands his employees to eat.

The tension that Theroux creates between Millroy and Jilly keeps the narrative moving. Millroy depends on Jilly for spiritual and psychic support. Jilly depends on Millroy for the physical safety and nourishment she never had. Jilly begins to recognize the twisted nature of Millroy, how dark and deep his manipulations have become: “A person with so many surprises had to be full of secrets.” Celebrity has become both his possession and paranoia. She makes brave attempts toward her own sovereignty but can never quite break free. Millroy knows why: “Once you have healed a person they are related to you. Once you have fed a person, they are part of you.”

Theroux repeats a theme found in The Mosquito Coast in which the protagonist, in his desire to find alternatives to a failing society, re-creates the social corruption from which he has separated himself. Disengaging from the status quo is never easy. Ideals are rarely brought into practice. But the old adage “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” stands up and stares Millroy in the face. No magic can save him from his human frailties.

Millroy the Magician has enough power to consume the reader, and might even get us to rethink our relationship to food. One can imagine this book assuming cult status on college campuses. It could even do some good. It is an imaginative fiction that exposes the power and manipulation of media in our culture and the effect it is having on our psychological as well as physical health.

Unfortunately, the narrative turns pale when Theroux insists on replacing one orthodoxy for another, brutalizing the reader with excessive and repetitive imagery, platitudes and an arrogance of style that ultimately becomes distasteful. It is in this context that Millroy the Magician loses its magic.

Even so, Millroy has a way of getting inside you. I must confess while reading this book I gave up sugar, reopened the Bible if only for recipes and began imagining a country less constipated.

Edward T. Wheeler (essay date 20 May 1994)

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SOURCE: Wheeler, Edward T. “What the Imagination Knows: Paul Theroux's Search for the Second Self.” Commonweal 121, no. 10 (20 May 1994): 18–22.

[In the following essay, Wheeler provides an overview of Theroux's travel writing and fiction, drawing attention to recurring themes and preoccupations that link his work in both genres, including his use of fictional doubles.]

At the close of his best-selling travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), Paul Theroux reflects that “… the difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is pure joy. …” In emphasizing recording and discovering, in making fidelity to the truth a standard for the writer, Theroux has obligingly provided a way of discussing his own work. He is a realist in the same sense that painters are representational; he offers us something recognizably human and does not disrupt fictional conventions in doing this. The characters and incidents of his travel books could find themselves (and frequently do) in his novels. And yes, his fiction is joy, but certainly not “pure” in the Sixth Commandment sense of the word.

Theroux was born in 1941 in Medford, Massachusetts, one of seven children of a French-Canadian and Italian Catholic family. In his essay collection Sunrise with Seamonsters he tells us of his happy home life, his indifferent high school education (“I was a punk”), his large, extended family, and of a father who happily invited Paul's many friends, rechristening them “Jack,” into the family. (The scenes he recounts of the family's summer house on Cape Cod show a warmth which should caution anyone who wishes to read the seemingly confessional novel, My Secret History, as an autobiography.) He went on to the University of Massachusetts and, since “[he] distrusted anyone who had not traveled,” soon found his way as a college teacher to Africa and then, five years later, to Singapore and finally to London, where he started the trek by train that was to become The Great Railway Bazaar. He has been traveling from London, often to Cape Cod and a house which brings him near to his family, ever since. When in 1985 the successful Theroux looked back at his early career he saw “incompleteness … being outside the current of society” as a motive driving him to a life as a writer. He admits, “For years I felt that being respectable meant maintaining a sinister complacency and the disreputable freedom I sought helped make me a writer.”

Paul Theroux at fifty-three has written twenty-nine books, more than one a year from the time he started to publish. This prodigious output can be divided roughly into fiction and travel books; the fiction seems to follow the travel, at least for locale and incident. There are the Africa books, the Singapore books, and United Kingdom books. His reputation was made, however, not by the fiction but by The Great Railway Bazaar and consolidated (as a travel writer) by five succeeding works. The novel, The Mosquito Coast (1982), transformed into a feature film, gave him the final push into international standing, confirmed by O-Zone (1986), My Secret History (1989), Chicago Loop (1991), and Millroy the Magician (1994). His fiction ranges as widely as his travel; we find a futuristic dystopia touching its end covers with a children's book, tales of murder in the Midwest next to trials of a Chinese merchant in Africa, expatriates all over the shelf, and, ultimately, first-rate story-telling.

Few can resist Theroux the genial traveler. The pleasures of rereading The Great Railway Bazaar are great, especially since his route in 1974 took him through what is now a very different political landscape. Yugoslavia, Iran, the Soviet Union appear from the other side of a historical dividing line; and we read with the wisdom of hindsight. Theroux sets his own high standard for travel, associating it with inconvenience, danger, bad food, sleepless nights, and sees his success as a function of providing that experience vicariously for the reader.

Indeed few people could or would hazard what he encounters. His ability to capture landscape, his eye for architectural detail, and his unfailing willingness to engage his fellow passengers make us want to travel through him, if not with him. Perhaps Theroux's greatest gift is his ability to record dialogue. As he confesses, “Conversationally I am a masochist, and there is nothing I like better than putting my feet up, tearing open a can of beer, and auditing a railway bore in full cry.” No one can have nothing to say to Paul Theroux and he recounts for us the great voice of the traveling human road show, be it by rail, sea, or air.

The novels sometimes offer far less congenial pilgrimages of the imagination. His self-confessed desire to travel and for a freedom which defies complacency characterize the thematic drift of Theroux's fiction. But it should be said that unlike a writer such as Graham Greene (with whom he has often been compared), Theroux seldom finds the tensions of his works arising from the tensions of being a Catholic. Indeed, his heroes exercise the disreputable freedom that he sought and presumably found in fiction. The earliest novel, Waldo (1967), is funny, picaresque, and prophetic. Waldo, the eponymous hero, does not get beyond the borders of the state of Massachusetts, but he inhabits frontier regions. Waldo begins in a reform school and ends in a freak show. And with typical disreputable freedom, the nineteen-year-old hero has a graphically described affair with an older woman; achieves notoriety by publishing an article on the freakish death of a neighbor; and reaches a resolution of his difficulties by murdering his lover and, encased in a glass booth, suspended above the heads of his audience, by retyping the story which won him fame.

Waldo nods to Nathaniel West's The Dream Life of Balso Snell but certainly marks out Theroux's own territory—sexual relations, violent and irrational impulses, freakish happenings, and the role of the writer in connecting the real and the fictional. Theroux's thematic range can be found on the pages of tabloids at the supermarket checkout, but his is a compelling moral fiction. Where is the legacy of his Catholic boyhood? We might see it in his concern with sexuality and guilt, or in the acute self-consciousness which he associates with the sinner in the confessional, but perhaps most of all in the sense of pilgrimage which characterizes his vocation as a writer: one who travels to give witness.

The pursuit of fictional truth is really, in the structured way of art, the working out of the premise: What would life be like if? Theroux's “what ifs?” run to conclusions as one of the famous trains does to a terminus. The journey has an alpha and an omega which spell extremes of personality and experience. But as he also says, rail journeys always end where they begin, and to achieve this rounding of life in art, to take endings to beginnings, Theroux often uses the dopplegänger or double figure made most familiar by a literary mentor, Joseph Conrad, in The Secret Sharer. The impact of meeting a second self has for Theroux many fictional ramifications: the dopplegänger device not only provides a taut plot structure but becomes a way of explaining the relationship between writer and subject and writer and reader. In My Secret History, for example, the double helps to define the creative process. How does this device with the peculiar German name work such magic? To answer, we must allow books to talk to books and understand Theroux by way of Conrad.

In The Secret Sharer the narrator, a ship's captain on his first command, gives help to an escaped prisoner with whom he finds affinity and later identity. The narrator is forced to confront himself, to recognize in the “secret sharer” his own capacity for evil—in this case murder—and face a moral decision: keep the double's existence secret and be complicit in the crime, or reveal him and betray him to injustice. The narrator “saves” his double and so expands and integrates his sense of self. The process is cathartic in the strict sense of the word: the narrator must internalize the double's crime and take responsibility for his flight and escape; he experiences pity, fear, and a liberating purgation. In many of Theroux's later novels, this plot structure and this process work as it did for Conrad. Theroux uses it often ruthlessly, to explore “what the imagination knows” but would rather not speak.

And there is another complication. If the double is read as a projection of the narrator's own consciousness, the device is a metaphor for the activity of the novelist as well. In Theroux's own words, “discovering what the imagination knows” comes about by meeting the possibilities inherent in the double's life. It this sense, Theroux continues the role ascribed to a novelist like Dickens, one in which the writer is cast as reporter of the real yet unfamiliar, a guide to the underworld hidden from ordinary daylight. Theroux is not a Dickensian stylist nor is he a social reformer, but his moral imagination can be seen to offer us a truth otherwise inaccessible. For example, Jungle Lovers (1971), provides us with considerable knowledge of Africa. Here is the initial premise: What happens if Calvin Mullet, a Massachusetts insurance salesman, opens a branch office in Malawi at the moment a revolution starts? He lives a life which is doubled with Marais, a Canadian ideologue gone Maoist in revolt. Their fates are paralleled and give us two ends of a spectrum: white people trying to understand and, in some sense, use Africans. The book is about not understanding Africa, or about regretting mistakes in interpreting the “parish” of Malawi—a country that exists only as an act of faith.

I suppose this is what novels do best, explain us to ourselves. We rely on Theroux in Jungle Lovers to explain our responses to Africa. In other novels we come to know Singapore and Central America, and, moving within, the mind of a murderer, a pimp, a Ph.D. call girl, an American in self-exile on the Honduran Mosquito Coast. The distance Theroux maintains from the protagonists, Calvin in Jungle Lovers, for example, offers leeway: he swings in arcs of perspective moored to a sympathetic if limited consciousness. We warm to Calvin, see as he sees, and learn from him, but ultimately see beyond him: the novel's close suggests his newborn son might not be his, yet Calvin imagines a stunning return to Hudson, Massachusetts, with his black African wife and “tar baby” child. The white man will bring a most ambiguous burden home from the tropics.

Saint Jack (1973) replays The Secret Sharer even more closely; Jack, an American expatriate in Singapore, finds a new sense of integration when he recognizes the essential similarity between himself and his double. The scene of moral crisis and triumph is typical of Theroux's fiction. Jack has contracted to supply incriminating photographs of an American general. But he is seduced by the call girl he has hired to bait the trap for the general who, in the interim, has found his own whore. Mimesis moves to interesting climaxes as Jack sees that if he were to incriminate the general he would condemn himself. He redeems self and other. Sex is grace in this novel, dispensed by Saint Jack in his role as “ponce” or procurer, and saving sexual grace is ultimately visited on him. Theroux has his ex-U.S sailor also tell us of the crisis of middle age, of the fears of young American servicemen on R&R from Vietnam, and of the machinations of the CIA. The arresting aspect of this novel is Theroux's projection of character: he imagines himself into the consciousness of a considerably older man. Similarly, in the story “Dr. DeMarr” in Half Moon Street (1984), we encounter twins who are tied in the womb to identical fates. Theroux uses this bit of yarn to look at drug addiction, problems of identity, and nasty betrayal of brother by brother.

The double life is the single topic of My Secret History. Its narrator, Andy or Andre Parent, tells his life story which apparently doubles that of his creator, Paul Theroux! We are warned at the start, however, that the narrator is not the author. (“I am not I”—so Theroux in his epigraph quoting Evelyn Waugh whose Gilbert Pinfold worked similar terrain.) Paradoxically, everything that links Paul Theroux and Andre Parent also points to that which separates them. The constraints of fact or the confessional honesty we would expect from autobiography are not required in such a work. Other concerns shape the narrative; apparent revelations about the real Paul Theroux come as a halted strip tease—we suspect that the bare truth is inaccessible but would be rather ordinary if we were to get beyond the imaginative make-up. Undoubtedly this is one way a public figure like Theroux deals with himself in that double role as private person and writer.

The “Altar Boy” section, which opens the novel, grounds the concept of secret history in a scene, the sacristy before Mass, and a situation, cassock and white surplice covering the sinner inside. Theroux's Andy hears: “an interminable whisper of suggestion that I was weak and sinful, and the sense that I was always wrong. … There was something natural and unavoidable about being bad.”

This is a wry and unsentimental look at a fifties Catholic boyhood: Andy listens, ears burning, to his co-server's sexual exploits as they swig altar wine; alcoholic Father Furty shows Andy a human warmth that incarnates the sacred; and the pastor, a terrifying martinet, acts as a surrogate angry-god and drives Andy into disreputable freedom. “God was always glaring at me out of a hot sky. He was as pitiless and enigmatic as most of the adults I knew—they all spoke for Him anyway—and He said no just as often.”

Theroux reminds us of the peculiar feel of ritual Latin on the tongue, the loony tensions of altar boy solemnity (the litany of altar boy gaffes is worth reading in its own right), the tussle over who rings the bells, the routine of funeral Masses. The vividness of the detail and the ease of the telling show mastery. But the pattern of the novel uses the secret life for ends other than nostalgia: “… at that age I belonged to no one, and then to everyone, because I didn't matter. There was no such thing as my privacy. If someone didn't spy on me it wasn't out of respect, but because they thought I had no secrets.” This anchors the writer's sense of identity: one who is detached yet open to experience, the observer, never the observed.

My Secret History offers intriguing insight into the way writers work, a particular yet fictional examination of conscience of the self who thinks and acts. The successful man of letters, Andy, leads a secret and finally a double life, two countries on two continents, two houses, two women, two selves. A chance notice of his reflection in a train window (naturally) causes this other sort of reflection:

… I saw there was a third person. He was the observer, the witness to all this … the one who stood aside and made the notes and wrote the books. His life was lived within himself. He was silent, he seldom gestured, he never argued, he dreamed, he saw everything and so he was the one who suffered.

This rather Christlike third person offers one version of the writer's vocation:

One of the greatest things that writers did, I thought, was to isolate an event, and light it with the imagination, to make people understand and remember; and not just events, but people and their passions. Forgetting was much worse than failure: it was an act of violence. For all writing aimed at defeating time. No one could become a writer—no one would even care about it until he or she experienced the impartial cruelty of time passing.

Redeeming time sounds suspiciously soteriological and the Trinitarian formulations point to a notion of the artist in some way religious. We can recall here Theroux's assertion that a travel writer undergoes ordeals which his readers could never brook: he is the servant who suffers and then brings order.

Theroux's 1991 work, Chicago Loop, is in many ways his most difficult; it exploits the double structure, almost chiastically, with the central crossing a murder. Parker, the protagonist, lives as a successful architect and inner-city developer and a secret correspondent and solicitor in personal ads. He murders grotesquely a woman who answers his ad and then assumes that woman's life. Chicago Loop has the psychological nightmare quality of Crime and Punishment, and a similar plot—but there is no Sonia to redeem Raskolnikov. Parker's is not a crime instigated by inhuman pride, the mind over heart which gives the superman his place in history. This is libido as explosive and demanding. At one point Parker and his wife visit the Mapplethorpe exhibit and discuss the photographs. It is characteristic of Theroux that he should explore the morality of art in his work, asking, as we are told Mapplethorpe's photographs ask, for recognition that people do terrible things to each other. And in fictional fashion Theroux can both affirm and deny that assertion by allowing the plot of the novel to exhibit the moral horror of what people do to each other, as aggressors and victims.

The truth of this novel is Dionysian; dark and bloody drives move the hero to consume his victim, and then in the act of expiation and rebirth take on her identity. Parker becomes a victim of men; in his transvestite meanderings through Loop-land, he suffers what men do to women and he knows what men want because he did once so want. Parker can release himself only in suicide, a spectacular rejection of his body in a leap off the Sears Tower. The artistic patterning which constrains the violence of the plot asks a reader to reconsider notions of truth and the morality of fiction. The writer takes on the burden of experience, this fallen world, and with the imagination's guidance, he discovers for and with us “what the imagination knows.” There is a high seriousness about Theroux's fiction that gives the writer, stilling time and gathering for his audience that which might be forgotten, a status which is both sacred and priestly.

As Theroux's travel books live by their recreation of verbal intercourse, his novels seem to take their energy from the sexual sort. Saint Jack and Chicago Loop represent the ends of the spectrum and Theroux travels with characteristic vividness along the continuum of changes that sex rings on us. Sex is one of the facts of life; what it does to us, and what we do with it, comes as part of the novelist's territory. One can't but admire the powerful libidos of various characters, but there is seldom joy in the telling: Calvin Mullet comments on the anonymity of sex and the many graphic scenes lead characters not so much to the sadness after coition but to self-reflection. The most physical way of coming out of ourselves or of accepting another is also the most isolating—except, as Theroux suggests on occasion, for the joy of procreating children.

Most readers cannot match in breadth or intensity the experiences Paul Theroux presents; yet it is the burden of realist fiction to convince us that the characters matter, that their conflicts and emotions are meaningful, and that the pattern of art in some way contains the ragged ends of life. The success of his travel books indicates how well he convinces others of the truth of what he has seen. His fiction, and I borrow here from his own reference to Mapplethorpe's exhibit, frequently forces us to admit that people do do such things to one another. The earlier novels, Fong and the Indians (1968) in particular, have a lightness of tone which beguiles. But later works, Picture Palace (1978) and those which follow, have a seriousness and intensity which convince but also appall. Theroux takes us into regions of the heart and mind we often would not go by ourselves “to make people understand and remember; and not just events, but people and their passions.” For that courage to follow his imagination we are in his debt.

Dean Flower (review date Autumn 1994)

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SOURCE: Flower, Dean. “Impersonations.” Hudson Review 46, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 495–502.

[In the following excerpt, Flower offers a mixed assessment of Millroy the Magician, citing shortcomings in the passive characterization of Jilly.]

[John Gregory] Brown is not the only male writer these days to adopt a female narrator; William Boyd in Brazzaville Beach and Norman Rush in Mating have provided influential examples, and now Paul Theroux has done it too. He impersonates a fourteen-year-old girl in his latest novel [Millroy the Magician], and more than gets away with it. She is a scruffy undersized kid named Jilly Farina, living in poverty with a drunken father. Along comes Millroy the Magician, a middle-aged carnival veteran whose magic is really magic, to Jilly, and her innocence is just what his faltering ego needs. He virtually steals her away, but Jilly is glad to become whatever he likes—acolyte, best audience, alter ego, even (in a disguise) his “son.” As Millroy's ambitions escalate—television magician in Boston, then TV evangelist and food fanatic, then vegetarian restaurant entrepreneur and national cult figure—Jilly evades the question of what Millroy really is to her: not her lover, but just as emotionally intimate as a lover might be; not her father, but just as protective and dominating as a father might be. Seen by Jilly, Millroy is a convincingly fabulous and problematic figure. When she holds him up against her dismal background—Buzzard's Bay trailer parks, dirty gas stations, all the dreary backwaters of Cape Cod that Theroux knows so well—the novel works wonderfully.

But Theroux is too much of a performer to be content with that. He allows Jilly to become, for long stretches of the novel, only passive, a mirror for the magician's show. Millroy is like the father in The Mosquito Coast, using his son for admiration and overpowering him. Millroy has a unique reading of the Bible which decodes all of its references to food as guides to perfect health. He has mystical theories about pleasurable digestion, internal purification, and sensuous evacuation. He becomes the archenemy of America's rampant carnivorosity, its cholesterol-loaded diets, its capitalism of gluttony. He wants to be a Messiah for troubled urban youth, whom he converts into Moonies of a sort, promising them lifespans of 200 years. He reads people's faces for the heart failures and cancers that bad diets will cause, and he investigates their bathrooms and toilets for evidence of moral character. While all this may be satiric and funny, Theroux does not know when to stop. He cannot resist calling attention to his sub-text, the novelist as magician and performer, himself as protagonist. There are still fine moments when Jilly brings the real world back into perspective. When she escapes from Millroy's spell for a time and goes home to discover a death in the family, she realizes how much he has displaced her humanity. He would have explained the death as “bad food and congested bowels.” Now she recognizes what is wrong: “Millroy logic explained life and death, and this explanation took the place of grief.” But there are too few such moments; the novel never fully recovers from the author's fatal impulse to dominate his narrator.

Ronald Curran (review date Autumn 1995)

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SOURCE: Curran, Ronald. Review of Millroy the Magician, by Paul Theroux. World Literature Today 69, no. 4 (autumn 1995): 797–98.

[In the following negative review, Curran asserts that Jilly's characterization and the narrative of Millroy the Magician are underdeveloped.]

Paul Theroux has built his reputation, in part, on his talent for creating eccentric characters whose capacity to stimulate imagination radically engages our willingness to suspend disbelief. V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Gore Vidal feel he has accomplished that in their dust-jacket “advance praise” for Millroy the Magician. But I fear a “conspiracy” similar to the one in the novel which brings down Millroy's growing chain of health-food restaurants. Like all too many contemporary novels measuring an inch and a quarter or more in thickness, Millroy suffers from downsizing in the editing industry as well as from an uncritical infatuation with the two main characters and their dialogues.

The result is an often banal and excessive banter, which keeps the reader outside the psyche of either Millroy or his “Sancho Panza,” Jilly Farina. She is the fourteen-year-old sidekick-adoptee whose masquerade as a boy waives public recognition or personal acceptance of her having entered puberty. Jilly's rejection and emotional splitting off from her trailer-camp, lower-class, alcoholic parents leads to her willing “abduction” by Millroy. He encourages her developmental arrest in order to preclude any suspicions of pedophilia, and he grooms her to be his “male” magician's assistant. Later, when his entrepreneurial spirit moves Millroy from the sideshow to the nationally famous children's TV series and from there to the mainstream of economic capitalism, Jilly becomes his girl Friday in order to protect him from intrusive journalists, cranks, and venture capitalists. In the closing chapters she briefly plays Boswell to his Johnson in her short-lived role as his immortalizer.

Ultimately, however, Jilly fails in sharing her fascination for this father-surrogate and magician extraordinaire. Her naïve awe and emotional dependence do not inspire the reader with a valuation equal to her own. Of course, any writer who pushes a new adolescent onto the stage of an American fiction takes a significant risk. The competition is fierce and the emotional perspectives omnipresent. Jilly is closer to Huck than to Holden, but a pale shadow of them both. She fails even to be much of a foil to Millroy, and her unmemorable remarks and thin characterization make her more a substitute for an omniscient narrator than a presence in her own right. She is more a device than a character.

In a way, Millroy the Magician vibrates sympathetically as part of the intertextual symphony of American fiction. Both Jilly and Millroy recall the threesome of Huck Finn, the Duke, and the Dauphin, except that Twain used his inept confidence men to mock the venal public they sometimes duped. Theroux, on the other hand, seems to be using Millroy the other way round. He appears to want the reader to be as affected as Jilly, but her respect carries little weight. (She sucks her thumb when feeling rejected.) Thus the book seems to teeter on the brink of becoming an unintentional satire in the mode of Kurt Vonnegut. But it ultimately seems more like thin realism, a kind of social criticism baptized ankle deep in the current of American naturalistic fiction: the Magician Evangelist in the Black Silk Cape.

Millroy, though, is no Elmer Gantry (a part he disclaims himself). But what exactly is he seems more to the point. Is the reader supposed to be as fascinated as Jilly over the “Jonah” story of his liberation from fatness, “how he had been imprisoned in the darkness of his body?” How he saw the light of healthy dieting, bailed himself out of failure, debt, and unemployment, then went on to national reputation and disgrace at the hands of nefarious, vengeful adversaries? The spiritual rebirth of a born loser? Or are we to be wowed (and kept interested) solely by his often gratuitous magic tricks?

The real “magic” is attempted by Theroux himself, as he turns this picaresque, rags-to-riches-Horatio-Alger-as-magician novel into a love story to rival the one by Erich Segal. Isolated on a Hawaiian island together at the novel's conclusion, Millroy and Jilly live together as reluctant fugitives from jaded justice and envious betrayals. Then (he's been holding this back all the time) Millroy tells her than he thinks of her as his “queen bee,” and she is not sure she is as “wicked grateful” as she often had been in the past for his crumbs of attention.

Slowly the conclusion suggests Nabokov's Lolita, as Millroy becomes Jilly's “James Mason” in the film version of the first American nymphette novel, and the heavy breathing begins. With little warning and less development, Millroy achieves by disappearing in the sea what Humbert Humbert never accomplished. For in the end this fourteen-year-old reluctant female “felt [her] tongue grow fatter in [her] mouth and heard a buzzing in [her] brain,” as she lets the post-middle-age (but really ageless) and bald Millroy know that she loves him. Huck could not have said it better to Jim. Millroy seems narcissistically indulgent and unaware of the authentic worlds out of which its characters came. As a result both background and character seem one-dimensional and unengaging.

Unfortunately, the novel fails to build up sufficient creative momentum to keep the reader interested and connected to a world that needs more imagination to blow life into it. Otherwise it is like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. It looks and acts like a novel, but its characters echo rather than resonate with the spirit, soul, and feeling necessary to give the book a pulse. Millroy the Magician may be a uniquely spiritual cookbook, but it fails as an engaging narrative. Robertson Davies (World of Wonders) has done it much better.

Adam Hopkins (review date 1 December 1995)

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SOURCE: Hopkins, Adam. “Unsentimental Journey.” New Statesman & Society 8, no. 381 (1 December 1995): 38.

[In the following review, Hopkins evaluates the strengths of The Pillars of Hercules, after confessing his initial apprehension about reading the work.]

The night before beginning a bout of “location” research for his new book, Paul Theroux found himself at a dinner in London with the Spanish ambassador. He mentioned that he was going to Spain next day. “Where to?” asked the ambassador. “Gibraltar,” said Theroux. It was a revealing moment, since this “wrong” answer may have sprung from one of several causes, all amply illustrated in the book.

Perhaps he was simply teasing. The Pillars of Hercules reveals Theroux as a great provocateur, willing to throw the stone that will provoke a storm between husband and wife, as in a mean little anecdote about a bus journey—in Spain. Perhaps he simply spoke without much thought. For in spite of a generally pensive mode, in which conversations are woven together into a surreal but suggestive pattern, he can also pass on a received opinion without examination. He cannot spot a German tourist, for example, without imagining invasion.

Equally, he may have been suggesting that, deep down, Gibraltar does belong to Spain, for this might well appear a just solution. Theroux is against party politics and on the side of broader justice.

More disconcertingly, if more remotely, there is the possibility of simple ignorance. For this is a man who is also capable, in spite of his enormous literary reading—often most enjoyably passed on—of turning up in Northern Cyprus in the belief that it is a Turkish province, rather than a soi-disant independent republic. “Silly me for thinking so,” he says. The point is that Theroux comes at you from so many directions—right, wrong, funny, irritating—that he is extremely hard to pop into a pigeon-hole.

I began this book with some hostility, having bowed out as a regular reader years ago on publication of his rather feeble novel, The Family Arsenal, set in a poorly realised Deptford. But as I read my way around the Mediterranean, I found myself warming to the man, putting up with him as one might with a short-tempered old friend who goes on and on about the same subject but frequently says something fascinating.

Endless complaints about chain-smoking, and people who eat fatty meat, and bullfighting in Spain and France (what did he expect, for heaven's sake?) are piled on reflex references to children as “snotty-nosed” and to adults as “shrieking” or “howling”—in my experience, uncommon conversational modes. This is all extremely boring.

But in the end the crabby moments are complemented by many instances of generosity. He loves the Spaniards because they are openly affectionate, the Italians because they accept a good deal of chaos without making a fuss, and because their country, in the end, is a place of mothering and consolation. He is particularly good on Israel, hating much of it but also understanding, most capaciously, why people behave as they do. And he laments the disappearance of the cosmopolitan, polyglot cities of the old Mediterranean—Alexandria, for instance—when displaced by a “militant tribalism.” These seem to me extremely valuable insights.

There are hosts of excellent one-liners. Combine this with interviews with famous authors—a settled item in the Theroux menu—and the many glimpses which he offers into his own travelling and the business of travel writing and you have, with some highly dull passages, a fascinating rag-bag of a book.

Structural difficulties, however, preclude wider generalisations. War and politics prevent him from getting right round the Mediterranean, with the North African coast, in particular, positively whizzing by. He generally avoids the bigger cities. He restricts himself to the coastal fringes, but refuses to contemplate tourism except with the loftiest disdain—a grievous gap in any serious estimate of the state of the Mediterranean.

But in the end his virtue is unflinching honesty. He is always in search of his own truest reaction, even if this shows him in an unfavourable light. Not many writers—honestly—can say as much.

Alexander Urquhart (review date 8 December 1995)

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SOURCE: Urquhart, Alexander. “Fly-Blown Odyssey.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4836 (8 December 1995): 12–13.

[In the following review, Urquhart offers a mixed assessment of The Pillars of Hercules, which he concludes is “an uneasy book” despite its “many delights.”]

At a time when the world's wilder places are rapidly becoming holiday destinations, it is heartening to discover that good travel writing can be done in an unexotic location. Paul Theroux has returned to the most heavily trodden, thoroughly documented terrain of all to make a year-long trek around the Mediterranean. At his best, he juggles the components of travel writing with rare precision and achieves a superbly balanced interaction between traveller, reader, journey and culture. The Pillars of Hercules is, however, not Theroux at his best. At times it infuriates and seems ill-conceived, but it is also immensely entertaining and there are passages which are as good as anything that he has done before.

The plan is to start on Gibraltar and end at Ceuta, the Moroccan rock on the opposite shore, hugging the coast and taking trains, buses and ferries, staying in cheap hotels. Travelling up the Costa del Sol and through its empty holiday ghettos, the author does not enjoy himself. Although he suggests that bad times are potentially more valuable to the travel writer than good ones, this first leg of the journey, through Spain and mainland France, is the least satisfactory part of the book. Theroux becomes obsessional and rages against bullfighting and tourism so that the reader learns too much about the traveller and not enough about Spain. It is fair to say that most of what he finds on the Mediterranean seaboard displeases Theroux. Once into France, where the landscape is lit up with almond blossom, he is obliged to tiptoe through towns from Perpignan to Nice because of the dog shit in the streets. Of the French he writes: “Their public obnoxiousness ranged from smoking in restaurants to testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific. Perhaps they did not know that the world had moved on, or perhaps they just did not care; or more likely they delighted in being obnoxious.” This kind of flagrantly provocative overstatement can, and often does, amuse, but it sits uneasily in a book which promises a deeper analysis and seems less of a tribute to Evelyn Waugh (whose Labels gave currency to irreverent travel writing) than a device to enliven a moribund episode. Political incorrectness—and it continues: “the Greeks are more xenophobic than the French, and more ill tempered and irrational”—wears thin after a bit because of the poverty of the principle it opposes. But in this context there is a more serious drawback; it focuses undue attention on the author. Theroux not infrequently asks himself what he is doing and even who he is, and the evidence on both counts is confusing. He is both a free spirit, riding the ferries with other nomadic vagrants, and a wealthy, middle-aged American writer who phones home a lot to Honolulu and complains that the Turkish telephones only work with Turkish telephone cards. Or he is re-enacting an eighteenth-century Grand Tour and seeking enlightenment at the court of Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo and that of Paul Bowles in Tangier; and, too, he is slumming it round Europe in a pastiche of 1960s drifting, with an American Express card for emergencies. There is nothing especially reprehensible about combining opposing identities, but Theroux's eagle eye for absurdity and contradiction primes the reader to appraise the author by his own standards.

But when Theroux starts to enjoy himself, these criticisms are easily forgotten. Once in Corsica, you are suddenly glad that you came after all. He stops complaining and becomes lyrical about the landscape. He has an intimate dinner with Dorothy Carrington, octogenarian English aristocrat and author of the travel classic, Granite Island. She tells him about her scandalous bohemian youth.

Sardinia and Sicily pass equally well, with Theroux achieving a sense of people and place by following unlikely pointers such as national preferences in pornography. In Calabria, he makes one of many literary pilgrimages: to Primo Levi's Eboli. Italy suits Theroux; his mother was Italian, and he speaks the language. He likes Italians not least because they like each other. He stops in Venice, “the loveliest city in the world,” then proceeds to Trieste in search of Joyce and Italo Svevo. In Croatia, his passage south is blocked at Dubrovnik, and he is forced to return to Italy in order to sail to Albania. Suddenly we are in a bizarrely hellish Swiftian world where everything has been more or less destroyed except 600,000 family-sized bomb shelters.

The Hotel Tirana was closed for repairs one person told me; for demolition someone else said. … The fields were as rubbly and irregular as everything else. They were not flat, the furrows were not parallel, nothing was plumb. Since arriving in Albania I had not seen a straight line. … And this absence of geometry, this disorder, made Albania seem deranged and gave Albanians a suspicious and retarded look.

Then the tourist season begins, and Theroux scuttles back to America, returning at the end of the summer, to start again from Nice as the guest of a Norwegian shipping line on a millionaires' cruise. From a gin-palace perspective, “Nice was not the overcrowded seaside resort of retirees and dog merds that I had passed through on a jingling train so many months before. It was merely a backdrop twinkling as I drank my complimentary glass of champagne.”

The other passengers, paying $1,000 dollars a day, afford some finely tuned social satire: “They sized up Greek ruins or colorful natives like heads of state reviewing a platoon of foreign soldiers, with a stately and skeptical squint, absolutely unhurried.” In Istanbul, he transfers to a battered Turkish ship bound for Alexandria, the city of his dreams. It turns out to be flat, “filthy and flyblown” instead of the great cosmopolitan playground described by Flaubert, E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell. But against all odds, Theroux's dreams revive, and he begins to see Alexandria as “A broken old hag that had once been a great beauty; she was not dead but fallen.” Moreover, he suddenly feels that he has a proper job to do: “‘No one has ever described the place where I have just arrived’; this is the emotion that makes me want to travel.” And one wonders why he has spent the past 363 pages haunting the ghost-town holiday resorts of the Northern Mediterranean.

The final leg of the journey involves much backtracking. Syria, reached overland from Istanbul, is bureaucratic and conspiratorial, but the countryside is pleasing and the people friendly. On the whole, Theroux is happier in Muslim countries, and he restricts himself to oblique reminders that he is now in a police state (overstatement for liberal democracies, understatement for a dictatorship; it works well). In Israel, where the people are perceived as “graceless and aggrieved with a kind of sour and gloating humour,” the temperature rises briefly. The Tunisians, on the other hand, are “hospitable and pleasant,” and he holes up on the empty island of Kerkennah to recuperate from flu. Algeria is too dangerous, so Theroux returns to Naples and then to storm-bound Algeciras, where he is obliged to wait for a week for the boat which takes him to his final destination in Morocco.

Although it contains many delights, The Pillars of Hercules is an uneasy book. Theroux's avoidance of tourists and attempts to dodge the debris left by earlier travellers and commentators, robs the journey of its natural momentum. Autobiographical input achieves continuity to some extent, but its power is diminished by intimations of mid-life crisis. Even Paul Theroux's familiar blend of peppery observation and surreal interview somehow works less effectively in Europe than it does in, say, South America.

Graham Coster (review date 8 February 1996)

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SOURCE: Coster, Graham. “Through the Grinder.” London Review of Books (8 February 1996): 18.

[In the following review, Coster contrasts the autobiographical aspects of The Pillars of Hercules with those of Theroux's fiction.]

‘Are you making a trip here to write a book?’ inquires the manager as Paul Theroux books into a hotel in Corsica, 136 pages into his latest travel narrative [The Pillars of Hercules]. ‘I don't know,’ replies the author. ‘It was the truth,’ he adds as an aside. ‘It was too early in my Mediterranean journey for me to tell whether it might be a book.’ From this most assiduous of travel-writers it is an unaccustomed admission. Theroux always finishes his journeys; always writes everything up. Completing the course, accomplishing the marathon challenge, is the point of the exercise.

They are always long books—no miniature monographs like Chatwin's on Patagonia or Rushdie's on Nicaragua. Graham Greene spun Journey without Maps out of a few weeks' trek into the Liberian interior, an itinerary further truncated by illness; for Voices of the Old Sea, perhaps his best travel-book, Norman Lewis hung out in a small Portuguese fishing village. Theroux's mileage always clocks up a high four figures. And while desultory, capricious travel tends to reveal its elusive agenda only belatedly—Greene's acknowledgment, in the grip of fever, of an unexpected interest in staying alive or Lewis's serendipitous discovery of an ancient and embattled subculture—Theroux restricts his personal travelling to a practical, conscientious regime of skating from country to country and brisk note-taking. It is in his fiction, when Allie Fox is displaced from upstate New York to the Honduran jungle in The Mosquito Coast, or the young Jilly Farina goes on the road in an Airstream caravan in Millroy the Magician, that Theroux writes about travel as an existential test, lands people further away than they want to go, imagines the restless momentum that drives an obsession away from any itinerary. His own voyages are a marketing department's dream, designed with travel-brochure simplicity and accessibility: Cross Asia by Train; Tour Britain by its Coastline; Go Everywhere in China, without recourse to tricky canoes, pack animals or primitive sanitary arrangements behind trees. When Theroux rides the Trans-Siberian Express again on his way out of China, his fellow passengers have The Great Railway Bazaar stowed in their luggage for reference.

Much disapproving peering over glasses greeted the memoir of Bruce Chatwin Theroux wrote for Granta. ‘Who needs enemies?’ people muttered, faced with this fierce appreciation of a bore, an incessant chatterer, an embellisher of fact, a callow enthusiast for pretentious sentences and bogus science, and someone who whinged with unattractive self-absorption about the difficulty of writing anything, when no one was asking him to anyway. But what makes ‘Chatwin Revisited’ an honest homage and not just an assassination is its author's unillusioned estimation, as a fellow travel-writer, of his own work. While Chatwin wrings his hands at his writer's block, Theroux is whacking out a book a year. If you're a writer, you write: not with ectoplasmic magic but an inevitable, unromantic productivity—in his own self-deprecating phrase, ‘turning the big wooden crank on my chomping meat-grinder.’ For all that he's quoted on its cover with a verdict of ‘excellent,’ a book like In Patagonia baffles him because it is ‘full of gaps. I used to look for links between the chapters, or between two conversations or pieces of geography. How had he got from here to there? How had he met this or that person?’ Travel is prose, not poetry: one's own tour proceeds, by implication, according to the same systematic grammar as its subsequent writing up.

So why the sudden doubt, creeping in less than a third of the way round the course? A circuit of the Mediterranean coastline, from Gibraltar to Tangier, is a strange choice for Theroux, albeit an obviously commercial proposition for a publisher. The simple justification is that he hasn't (as he tells us twice within five pages) been to places like Egypt and Israel before, but in past travel books Theroux's unexamined but adamant American ethnocentricity thrived on places like Britain (The Kingdom by the Sea) and China (Riding the Iron Rooster) where public-sector strikes in Lincolnshire or nascent capitalism in Shanghai presented inversions or distortions of value-systems he could understand. Even amid the most exotic locations of his fiction, Theroux's subject is America and the excesses of its society. There's a significant moment in Riding the Iron Rooster when he snuggles up in his bunk on the Trans-Siberian Express to read Elmer Gantry: American religion, dietary habits, franchise culture—its secular decadence is Theroux's continuing fascination, just as it was Sinclair Lewis's. It's as though he has to travel to Russia, China or, in his fiction, to Africa or Honduras, to see America clearly.

Until we get to Israel, which provokes his trademarked bolshiness about having bank-rolled the place personally with his own tax dollars. Theroux on this year's tour is rather lost. The foreigners are all too foreign: the Spanish with their bloodthirsty bullfights, the Italians chucking litter everywhere, the Greeks picking everyone's pocket, and the French—why don't they use pooper-scoopers like New Yorkers do? The kind of misanthropy that entertains as comic rant in the mouths of Theroux's fictional anti-heroes is here, coming from someone travelling of his own free will, about as attractive, and instructive, as listening to someone bemoan the absence of Watney's Red Barrel in the local bars. You can't imagine Theroux summoning up much interest in the history of the aristocratic Grand Tour, and he doesn't, notwithstanding that this is the context for the journey he's undertaken. And since he's always pronounced himself defiantly bored by piles of stones and crumbling ruins signifying vanished civilisations, even the title of this tome heralds a hard time ahead. ‘Nothing was more human than direct speech,’ asserts Theroux's writer-narrator in My Secret History; but from Pompeii to the Acropolis, it's dumb stone all the way.

To make matters worse, Theroux goes out of season. That avoids the ghastly tourist masses: in fact, it ensures meeting hardly a soul. Once he has checked into the hotel in Ajaccio, he tells us: ‘I went for a walk through the empty town, got a drink at an empty bar, then went back to my room to read Anthony Burgess's autobiography.’ The next day, having decided to catch the ferry across to Sardinia, ‘I bought a croissant and a cup of coffee, and then climbed to the fort and walked along the cliff path and found a warm rock and read my Burgess book, and snoozed.’

We endure this grim slog, from windy seafront to pizza restaurant to early night, all the way to the former Yugoslavia, standing outside phone boxes while Theroux calls his partner in Honolulu to tell her how he'd much rather be there than here; learning that Bari in Italy is a ‘useful’ place as it allows him to catch up on his laundry; suffering a commentary on the price of mid-market hotel rooms at the same time as the virtues of Barcelona are extolled because it has plenty of Theroux's books on sale. You wonder if Theroux's editor really bothered to read the first half of this book: the text shows little sign of any editing, from the embarrassing literal of ‘V. S. Naipul’ in the opening list of Theroux's other publications through sentences without main verbs and the graceless, low-pressure prose of ‘so forths’ and book-puff clichés that laud Tender Is the Night as ‘brilliantly observed’ and Death in Venice and Ulysses as ‘masterpieces.’ The same person who, in Riding the Iron Rooster, could describe a wife sleeping with her fat husband as ‘curled around him like a wood shaving’ is certainly writing down to his enervated subject. A few years ago Theroux took Edward Heath to task, in a review collected in Sunrise with Seamonsters, over the deathless prose of his book Places, that gilded nowhere in the world less or other than ‘pleasant.’ Remarkable and depressing, then, to read in The Pillars of Hercules of Barcelona as ‘pleasant,’ the fish soup in Nice ‘quite pleasant,’ the weather in Bari ‘pleasant’ and the people of Bari ‘pleasant.’ And the town of Chioggia? Theroux does not mince words: ‘pleasant.’

Things pick up once Theroux gets to Croatia and finds himself in a war zone. Split still makes him want to split, in his tired pun, but the burden of aimless, obligated travel is lifted by the confrontation with undeniably extreme events. The Yugoslavian conflict prompts Theroux to the pertinent observation that this is a new outbreak of medieval warfare by siege. But the best part of The Pillars of Hercules is stimulated by two cruises Theroux joins, the first taking wealthy American retirees to Istanbul, the second a ramshackle Turkish steamer calling at Egypt, Israel and Cyprus. This is a return to generic Theroux: sharp, colour-piece journalism with a ready-made, large and heterogeneous cast of characters whose inconsequential, demotic monologues crowd out his own fulminations. The latter voyage, among tourists who have saved long for their holiday and are sadly deflated by their tatty conveyance, is narrated by Theroux with an acknowledgment of the generosity and forbearance of these American retirees. Now absolved from the fuss of getting himself from A to B and sharing every solitary pizza with us, he's at home among his own kind. Genuinely waggish, dismissing Athens and its sights as ‘a four-hour city,’ they share his impatient, snap-judgment approach to travel, and Theroux turns his voyage with them into congenial comedy.

Here you feel, for the first time in the book, the inkling of a genuine subject, as opposed to simply another marathon course. This was where I decided there was a book in it—with these ingenuous, dismissive, worldly and enormously well-travelled elderly people, on their never-ending and frenetic retirement voyage, devouring the Galapagos last year and Vietnam next. Their Flying Dutchman passage through their last years made me wonder about an alternative scenario for exploring the Mediterranean, with Desert War veterans revisiting cemeteries in Tobruk, Christian pilgrims enabled by maturing life insurance policies to see the Holy Land for the first time, and British pensioners wintering out in Benidorm apartments. We think of old age as sedentary, and travel as the priority of the young, reckless adventurer. Theroux marks the obvious comic irony of these Americans competing at dinner to drop names of places visited, but not the mysterious pathos of travel in old age, driven to huge geographic displacement by nostalgia, affluence, boredom, or a whole life's anticipations and regrets.

Such wider, more self-effacing possibilities for exploration are lost not only in the relentless chomping of Theroux's meat-grinder, but also because, as he has already told us in Riding the Iron Rooster, he regards travel-writing as ‘a minor form of autobiography.’ Writers like Norman Lewis may travel the world invisibly and unselfconsciously, their subject and destination the lives of others to the specific exclusion of their own, but Theroux's journeys are ultimately only his own. In The Pillars of Hercules, moreover, the preponderance of on-the-hoof justifications of travelling and writing—a weight of special pleading which indicates once more the author's own doubts about his material—is remarkable for its banal absence of ambition, in contrast with the oblique and profound variations on the autobiographical genre he develops in his fiction. ‘Just looking’ is how Theroux meekly glosses it in the most extended of these ponderings. ‘Curiosity was my primary impulse—sniffing around … The look and feel of a place, the people—what I could grasp of their lives … I was a spectator, certainly, but an active one. I was also passing the time, and there was nothing unworthy in that.’

Contrast this listless tourism with the ferociously direct navigation of a life in My Secret History, a kind of fictional travel-book, in which, through his narrator André Parent, Theroux writes, if not as himself then as though himself, ruthlessly cutting across the passage of years and continents in the certainty that it is all of great significance. Even the dateline uniquely appended to that book, ‘East Sandwich—Shanghai—London,’ suggests an intense, necessary collaboration of travel-writing and autobiography. Where V. S. Naipaul could write of his return to India that it was ‘a journey that should never have been made,’ breaking his life in two, the flat verdict on this journey is that it need not have been. Better to have set up the typewriter on some sunny Mediterranean terrace above the beach, and made the year's book another novel.

Zachary Leader (review date 5 July 1996)

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SOURCE: Leader, Zachary. “An Author and His Egos.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4866 (5 July 1996): 22.

[In the following review, Leader examines the imaginary and the real-life incidents in My Other Life, distinguishing the significance of the difference between the two.]

When “Paul Theroux,” the hero of this “imaginary memoir,” approves what he has written (The Mosquito Coast is the book in question), he pronounces it “strange, true, comic, and unexpected,” terms which apply also to the memoir itself. Theroux continues: “I wanted people to believe it and like it, and to find something of themselves expressed in it.” He wants people to believe and like his writing because it is true, but also because it is not true, since he has succeeded in making it seem true when in fact it is fictional. The mimetic impulse combines with an urge to manipulate or control, not just the reader, who is disarmed by the unexpected (the quality Theroux claims “mattered most” in the novel), but the world; in the words of John Updike, casually swiped at here, “the world, so balky and resistant and humiliating, can in the act of mimesis be rectified, adjusted, chastened, purified.” This paradox—mimesis as rectifying, purifying—is at the heart of My Other Life; again and again, a messy “real” world, the world of autobiography, teasingly modulates into fantasy or wish-fulfilment, shaping and ordering the life in the process.

For example, after the breakdown of his marriage, Theroux receives a postcard from an old lover, since married and divorced. He begins to speculate about the lover's husband, or ex-husband, something he might himself have become:

Who was he, this man she had married and divorced, the father of her child? I told myself it did not matter. But the longer I thought of it the more profound my feeling that he mattered. In the end I was preoccupied by him, because whoever he might be he was the man I would have become. … In my speculative frame of mind the only way I could determine the caliber of the bullet I had dodged was to see the man it had hit.

Through the secretary of a lawyer friend, an expert in finding people, Theroux discovers the man's address and telephone number and arranges to meet him incognito (Theroux loves disguise and secrecy, never tells anyone his real name or profession). The episode is like a Borges parable (the novel's epigraph comes from Borges), a literalizing or fictionalizing of the writing process. “In the active search for my other life,” explains Theroux, thinking of the life he might have led, had he married the ex-lover, “I was operating in the world of reality. I needed to find this man in order to finish my story. I realized that the ability to find someone—to locate a stranger lost in the darkness—approaches an art, since its nearest analog is in the writer searching his imagination for a character.” In Theroux's real life, such speculation about people results in fiction; as it has here, in a story about an author investigating, “in the world of reality,” the sort of life “I could have lived had things been different,” a phrase Theroux uses, in an Author's Note, to describe his aims in the book as a whole.

Theroux's meeting with the lover's ex-husband is poignant and revealing, not least because the ex-husband voices his despair in the very words—“I lost everything”—Theroux uses about himself, after the collapse of his own marriage. He is thus not merely an “imagined” alter ego (“the man I would have become”) but a “real” one (an actual character in the novel, one in some ways eerily like Theroux himself). The ex-husband takes his place at the end of the line of alter egos that includes both real-life figures (Anthony Burgess, for example) and more obviously invented ones (“Andreas Vorlaufer,” a Doppelgänger straight out of James Hogg). Vorlaufer, whose name means forerunner or precursor, seems to have written everything Theroux has written, only earlier and in German, including a story painfully recounting the break-up of his marriage, a story full of intensely personal detail—from Theroux's life as well as Vorlaufer's, one is made to suspect. “That's the saddest thing I ever heard,” declares the Vorlaufer-figure in the story; “it was the saddest story I had ever read,” Theroux comments.

The novel's dizzying self-referentiality is leavened by the stories themselves. An improbable patron in Singapore liberates Theroux and his family from academic penury, and introduces him to a man who turns out to be Nathan Leopold, the child murderer. Theroux meets the Queen and Prince Philip, and the Queen's touch helps to cure him of depression and writer's block. While at work on one of his travel books, The Kingdom by the Sea, Theroux narrowly escapes being murdered by a woman who takes him to a remote cottage on the Yorkshire coast, on the longest, foggiest night of the year. As always, the modulation into fantasy disarms. Only in retrospect does one see it as part of a pattern: such episodes memorialize (by fictionalizing) a writer's habitual response to real-life experiences. Just after the collapse of his marriage, Theroux meets the Queen, or perhaps only imagines such a meeting. What if the divine right of kings were true, and the Queen had a touch of divinity? “Even an imagined life resembles one that was lived,” the Author's Note declares, “yet in this I was entirely driven by my alter ego's murmur of ‘What if?’”

The fantastical nature of many of the answers offered to this question in My Other Life—their obvious debt to genre fiction, to ghost story, tall tale, detective novel—is welcoming, hospitable. Theroux wants the unexpected to please as well as disarm or disorient. He is also generous in exposing the tricks of his trade, depicting in loving detail the chaste delights of a perfect writing day, explaining how “a trickle of water” observed in his London garden becomes “a river, with mud-slides and ox-bows” in The Mosquito Coast. Such hospitality is surprising, given Theroux's habitual aggression towards readers, his tendency to dupe and jeer at those he encounters, to present them as naive, obtuse, insane. “You feel at the end of it that you know him pretty well,” a smug and unsuspecting admirer of The Great Railway Bazaar says of its author to his face—without recognizing him. When Theroux arranges a dinner party for Anthony Burgess and Burgess's greatest fan, Samuel Lettfish, an American lawyer, the fan is systematically humiliated. “Can you name a single writer who went to law school?,” Burgess snarlingly asks Lettfish, whose name and accent he mocks. “You can't name one.” “I own every book you've ever written,” blurts the lawyer. “Too bad you can't read, Max,” Burgess replies. Burgess is drunk and grins “horribly” at Lettfish; Lettfish is “bug-eyed,” glowing with silent “rage and disappointment.”

Theroux is a good hater, and a number of the best bits in the novel—there are many, Theroux is writing near the top of his form—are unforgivingly observant, especially of the English. “I'll keep that in mind,” drawls the literary editor of the New Statesman. “As you say in America, I'll think it over mentally.” “Working-class people have supper,” declares another snobbish literary type (her name is “Marwood,” like a character from Congreve), correcting a non-U acquaintance. “‘Working-class’ is a euphemism I just adore,” declares her companion, the poisonous Lady Max, who lives in The Boltons, runs literary London, and, when interrupted, screams at her daughter in a voice simultaneously “harsh, angry, pitiless, ignorant.” So repellent is Lady Max that it's impossible not to speculate about a real-life prototype, a common temptation in these pages. The portrait of Prince Philip, a man of “relentless negativity and unhelpfulness,” is comparably malicious and plausible. To live in England, among such people, requires “not Anglophilia but tolerance and lowered expectations.” Theroux complains of loneliness and isolation, but fits right in (or did so until recently), with his easy talk of “how philistines viewed bookish people—as heartless and unphysical and time-wasting.”

At the end of the novel, thanks in part to the Queen's touch, Theroux finds himself in Hawaii, still under the delusion “that you can be a new person in a distant land.” His “other life,” the life he has imagined so vividly in the preceding pages, still haunts him; he feels an exile in hiding, “like Adolf Eichmann on Garibaldi Street in Buenos Aires.” Though neither a murderer nor a criminal, “an obscure sense not of guilt but of danger” unsettles him, “as though I was a victim being stalked in a case of mistaken identity.” By the book's last pages, though, this sense has gone; a way has been found to break with the past while also incorporating it in the present, something Theroux hospitably identifies in the book's final, unironic sentence as “the meaning of life and the source of all art.”

Molly Mortimer (review date October 1996)

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SOURCE: Mortimer, Molly. “Following the Grumbling Theroux.” Contemporary Review 269, no. 1569 (October 1996): 221–22.

[In the following review, Mortimer offers a generally positive assessment of The Pillars of Hercules.]

Paul Theroux has mellowed between the Pillars of Hercules, even allowing a wry smile at his own image as travel writer basher second only to Evelyn Waugh. Perhaps he feels some responsibility as a successful travel writer. This book [The Pillars of Hercules]—too long at 523 pages—reads something like a Ramblers' Association brochure, and that is no insult as anyone who has tried his hand at compressing accurate information knows. Travel writers can produce books in a variety of ways. If Marco Polo, according to recent theories, could produce his famous travels from the comfortable confines of Genoa, with a few brief excursions to the Black Sea, and forget to mention entirely the Great Wall and Tea, why not others?

Starting at the Rock of Gibraltar he grumbles his way eastward with normal gibes at the British, and moving eastward on leisurely local transport, touches on Eboli and surfaces in Corsica in time to meet a fellow writer, Dorothy Carrington, whose new book had just been published. Some island hopping later he reaches the edge of Asia in Turkey, for which he finds an unexpected empathy, perhaps through dislike of the Greeks.

After reaching Albania, poor beyond his worst nightmares, Paul takes a breather at home before continuing his tour. He has the original idea of retracing exactly the same journey but from the different view point of a luxury liner. His fellow cruise passengers were almost all American. Though a latent patriotism emerges when Croatians criticise American aid, he does find it hard to equate the obese fellow citizens ‘doing’ the Amazon and Antarctica, stuffed to the gills with plovers eggs, with Albanians starving drearily on the sky line. Soon, a definitive Ph D on Tourism and Revolution will be essential for western survival.

Hidden away amid all the grime and neglect of Syria was Paul Theroux's most interesting find, for a writer. In the ruins of Ugarit, once a mighty city, he was able to handle some of the earliest writing tablets with alphabet signs, now known. One would think some shrine to this patron saint of literacy would be set up, and maybe copies of the Rosetta Stone and ‘Just So’ Stories recorded there. Perhaps when what he calls the stimulating monotony of writing fails, Paul Theroux will follow the ancient tracks of literacy through the world. He might find knowledge of the Word more exciting than bargained for.

Martin Rubin (review date 20 October 1996)

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SOURCE: Rubin, Martin. “Masquerading as Fiction.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 October 1996): 6.

[In the following review of My Other Life, Rubin commends Theroux's skillful prose and lively characterizations, but finds shortcomings in his efforts to probe the psyche of his alter-ego.]

This is a problematic book, a tricky book, an infuriating book. It is also frequently amusing and highly absorbing. In short, a lot of fun to read but hard to penetrate at a deeper level. And it is necessary to look beneath the surface, for My Other Life is obviously not designed solely to entertain, well though it does that. Just what is Paul Theroux up to this time?

He tells us this is a novel. Also, that it is an “imaginary memoir.” His publisher calls it an “autobiographical novel or fictional autobiography.” It reads as if it were straightforward autobiography: first-person narrative by a writer named Paul Theroux who has written the books that we all know Paul Theroux has written and who has married, fathered two sons and otherwise lived where and how the “real” Paul Theroux has.

It does not strike me as a traditional autobiographical novel, which I'd define as a fictional rendering of some of an author's life experiences in which certain specific details, like the author's name and other names and incidents, have been changed. So, one is left with the suggested category of fictional autobiography, whatever that is. Is it a truly new genre? Is Theroux inaugurating a new art form as he extends the range and variousness of his literary output? Or is he simply doing what comes naturally, mixing memoir with might-have-been, telling his own story along with some tall tales he may wish were true?

What is particularly troublesome about this book is that Theroux is so obviously manipulating, even toying with, the reader. His “Author's Note” states: “This is the story of a life I could have lived had things been different. … The fact that there are limits to serious travesty and that memory matters means that even an imagined life resembles one that was lived; yet in this I was entirely driven by my alter ego's murmur of ‘what if?.’ These characters do not exist outside this intentionally tall story … and the action of the narrative is vagrant in every sense. There are some names you know … but they too are alter egos, other hes and shes. As for the other I, the Paul Theroux who looks like me, he is just a fellow wearing a mask. …”

But in fact, the book does the exact opposite of what has just been promised: The “fictional” Paul Theroux, like the real one, hails from Medford, Mass., serves with the Peace Corps, marries an Englishwoman in Africa and fathers two children, teaches and writes in Singapore and then comes to London before divorcing his wife and moving back to the United States. He claims the man is fiction and the mask is real, but isn't it the other way round?

W. Somerset Maugham once said that fact and fiction were so inextricably mixed in his stories that he no longer knew which was which. Theroux, however, seems very much in control of his material and I have not the slightest doubt that he knows which parts of this book really happened to him and which ones he invented. The rub is that he isn't letting the reader know which is which.

But does this, after all, matter to the reader? Can he not simply enjoy this book for its many pleasure: its passages of lyrically beautiful prose, its sharply etched social portraiture, its skillful evocation of emotions? I suppose so, but again Theroux seems to have gone to considerable trouble to ensure that the reader play the game he has set up for him and perhaps originally for himself. Indeed, this book gives the distinct impression of having been written as a kind of one-man chess game in the first place.

My Other Life contains savage portraits of real-life characters, some safely dead, like Anthony Burgess, and thus unable to dispute Theroux's version of events. Others, like Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, while undoubtedly alive, find themselves by virtue of their position equally unable to dispute an unflattering and even damaging portrait of themselves in what was apparently a private situation.

I single out these particular portraits because they have already, thanks to serialization of parts of this novel in The New Yorker, elicited great controversy. Burgess may be dead, but Theroux's ex-wife is not and she wrote an irate letter to the New Yorker not only challenging the accuracy of the Burgess incident but denying that this dinner party at the Theroux home in London ever took place. (The upshot of this seems to have been a change in the first name of the author's wife in the novel version—a pretty lame equivocation, I'd say.) The author's ex-wife was not the only reader naive enough to resent fiction masquerading as self-refuting “faction”: The incident featuring the queen was likewise taken to be reportage, judging by the press' reaction to certain racially insensitive remarks she (oops, her “alter-ego”) is alleged to have uttered about the hapless premier of one of her more remote dominions.

It must, in fairness, be noted that Theroux is able to carry off his brutally satiric portraits of others because he does not spare himself. Readers familiar with his travel writing will recognize the “Paul Theroux” in this book as the wry, detached persona who rode the trains of Asia or the boats of the Mediterranean, but they will also be exposed to a searching portrait of more tormented, angry, acrid and unpleasant character than has hitherto been presented.

A writer of Theroux's 55 years came of age in the era in which literary studies were dominated by the New Criticism, a movement that sternly enjoined that attention be devoted solely to the text without reference to biographical or historical background. I am tempted to think that My Other Life is Theroux's revenge upon the New Critics: a book that demands to be read biographically—which is written in such a way that only a reader from Mars might possibly read it without making such references—but which also coyly declares itself a denizen of the sacrosanct domain of imaginative literature.

It is unfortunate that Theroux, an acknowledged master of travel writing, has chosen to write a book that travels around the edges of his protagonist (or self) rather than voyaging into the heart of darkness that seems to lurk just offstage in the character, fictive or real-life, of Paul Theroux.

David Sexton (review date 18 January 1997)

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SOURCE: Sexton, David. “Strangers and a Brother.” Spectator 278, no. 8790 (18 January 1997): 28–29.

[In the following review, Sexton offers a positive assessment of The Collected Stories and comments on the difficulty of assessing Theroux's overall literary achievement.]

Paul Theroux, a great placer himself, is oddly difficult to place. His travel books, for example, are not entirely factual, while much in his novels is not wholly fictional. In My Secret History, he delivered an obvious version of his own life under another name, André Parent. Then, in My Other Life, he actually named himself and others but claimed everything to be imaginary (including a dinner party with the Queen).

If Theroux is evasive about genre, he's no less sly about his own standpoint. For instance, is he an American writer or a conveniently universal expatriate? Throughout his career, he has effectively exploited the clash of cultures, rather than studied encounters between individuals within a single world. The two sets of stories which close this omnibus [The Collected Stories], The Consul's File, set in Malaysia, and The London Embassy, are explicitly about foreign relations, but the subject has been there from the beginning.

The opener, ‘World's End,’ is a cruel account of an American who has transplanted his family to that part of Chelsea, believing ‘he had not merely moved his family but rescued them.’ But he learns that he has lost them to a rival, an Englishman:

He wished he had never come here, and worrying this way he craved his child and had a hideous reverie, of wishing to eat the child and eat his wife and keep them in that cannibal way.

In the final story, ‘Memo,’ the narrator of The Consul's File makes a security report on an American woman in London whose visa is about to expire, announcing that he has married her himself. He gives his name for the first time here—and there the book immediately ends.

In his travel books—and in a sense they're all travel books—Theroux has enjoyed the freedom that being out of context gives to make snap judgments, sweeping characterisations. As a visitor, one can make the obvious observations which have disappeared from view for those more acclimatised: Theroux does so unforgivingly. But then he also seizes on the reverse exposure of fellow travellers, as their habits and assumptions come suddenly into focus against a different background. It is his merciless portraits of the people he meets at a disadvantage either way that make his travel-writing so shamefully enjoyable: none so nasty.

The permutations of displacement are endless and they provide nearly all the broad comedy of this huge volume. In ‘Yard Sale,’ Floyd returns to the States after two years serving in the Peace Corps in Western Samoa, to stay with an aunt since his parents have divorced and sold off the contents of the family house. He no longer feels at all at home, having a fit in the fresh-fruit department of a supermarket:

‘One fifty-nine!’ he jeered. ‘In Samoa, you can get a dozen bananas for a penny. And look at that,’ he said, handling a whiskery coconut. ‘They want a buck for it!’

Sinking into depression, he tells his aunt he thinks he has got culture-shock.

Isn't that something you get at the other end? I mean, when the phones don't work in Nigeria or you find ants in the marmalade or the grass hut leaks.

Floyd hopelessly replies: ‘Our huts never leak.’

In Theroux, such culture-shock never comes to an end, often being triangulated or squared for good measure. Some of his sketches in The Consul's File of what the English can do to Americans in England are classic insults. In ‘An English Unofficial Rose,’ the narrator falls for a girl named Sophie who helps him find a flat and then suddenly asks for a two per cent commission. Later, he meets the seller, a German, and learns that he also was charged two per cent.

‘These English girls—especially the ones with money—can be very businesslike. And did you notice? She is very pretty. She lives with an Iranian chap. They all want Iranians these days.’ The German laughed out loud.

In ‘Children’ there's a memorably horrible study of the way English prep-school boys teach some American children to boast.

‘My father's got an office in Jeddah,’ Nigel said … He added, ‘My father goes there by Concorde.’ ‘Concorde doesn't go to Jeddah,’ Jocko said. ‘It goes to Bahrain,’ Nigel said. ‘He changes planes there.’

These bright, funny cartoons are all brief. Theroux's natural length is the anecdote, although he has implied otherwise in these stories by using the same narrator and having characters recur and incidents link up from one piece to another. In his introduction, he says that

such stories are almost the whole of my imaginative task as a writer. In a novel I try to make each chapter as complete and harmonious as a story. My travel books are a sequence of traveller's tales.

Thus he makes a virtue of a necessity. Snapshots can't be set in motion and these stories just couldn't go on. Their assertiveness makes them easy to pick up but it's not a style that can be persuasively protracted. Still, Theroux contends, if all his writing is episodic, they're good episodes: his stories are the best of him. He wraps up this peculiar preface with a self-pitying forecast:

Pretty soon I will be gone, and afterwards when people say, He is his stories, the statement will be true.

He is the shadow, his fiction the substance.

Yet the biggest difficulty in placing Paul Theroux remains deciding just how substantial these stories are. In the most extraordinary piece of literary criticism published last year (‘Blood Feud,’ Boston Magazine, October), Paul Theroux's novelist brother Alexander took it upon himself to explain how little his sibling has achieved:

He is ignored by the Academy and smiled down on by the literary establishment, for the most part. Nobody I know has written so many books (20 novels, 10 travel books) with so little serious critical recognition to show for it. None of his books are taught in colleges or have cult status or have generated, I believe, a single scholarly essay, and most of them are presently out of print.

Disguised as a review of My Other Life, this was an attempt at public fratricide. Alexander Theroux's animus was unmistakable, for all his protestation:

We in the family don't mind his affected gentility, his smug and self-important airs, his urgent starfucking insistence that he's a friend of lords and ladies, and only laugh at the fame he courts, the self-aggrandisement, inviting celebrities like Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel to his house, neither of whom, I believe, has ever quite managed to make it.

This was telling him on a dreamy level:

He has bowel worries and eats prunes for breakfast and once made enquiries to me about platform shoes. No one I have ever met in my life is a worse, almost pathologically unsympathetic listener.

And so forth.

But behind this freestyle slapping, there was a specifically literary complaint that, straddling genres, Theroux is a writer who just won't stand up to be counted:

Shouldn't he simply and manfully tell us, regarding both the himself who isn't him and the actual characters he actually names but insists are only fictional, precisely where the real faces end and the grimaces begin … ?

‘Simply and manfully’—plainly, Alexander Theroux, too, would like Paul Theroux to be more easily put down. That, after such a prolific career, Paul Theroux should still be so difficult to place reveals that he is a good deal more subtle a writer than many of his readers have recognised. Every one of these stories is, by the way, smoothly entertaining.

Bharat Tandon (review date 31 January 1997)

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SOURCE: Tandon, Bharat. “Scrutinizing the Self.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4896 (31 January 1997): 20.

[In the following review of The Collected Stories, Tandon commends Theroux's satires on cross-cultural blunders, but concludes that much of his fiction is marred by a sense of self-indulgence.]

Paul Theroux observes in his introduction to this collection [The Collected Stories], “As a person I am hurt and incomplete. My stories are the rest of me,” going on to check himself with the qualification “No, no—my stories are better than me.” His remark has precedents, not least Chesterton's suggestive flourish about Dickens's characters being more real than their creator, but it is also typical of one tone within Theroux's literary accents which sounds throughout his stories all the more clearly, and perhaps somewhat too loudly when a quarter-century's work is read together. Chesterton, after all, was talking of someone else's writing; it is another thing altogether to say such things of one's own. What sounds like an honest self-scrutiny in the introduction can, in the fiction itself, shade all too often into petulance, as insecurity can be just another way of fishing for compliments.

One cannot deny the sheer range of Theroux's stories: from London literary salons to Far Eastern consulates, the stories stand as a complementary body of work to his travel writing, and share many of its concerns: dislocation, escape and their attendant doubts, as the Westerner abroad wonders how much he is missing or simply inventing. At his best, Theroux can combine these elements into sinister comedies of cultural misunderstanding. In “White Lies,” for example, the American entomologist narrator observers his housemate's African mistress, and finds himself at once interrogating and indulging a Western taste for exoticism: “Jika in his cook's khakis and skullcap pedaling the long legged Ameena—I must say, she reminded me of a highly desirable insect.” When the lover is abandoned in pursuit of a white teenager, Jerry the housemate is afflicted by flesh-eating maggots: but, in a neat moment of narrative reversal, it proves to be not an exotic curse but the man's own bad housekeeping:

their life cycle was the same as many others of their kind: they laid their eggs on laundry and these larvae hatched at body heat and burrowed into the skin to mature. Of course, laundry was always ironed—even drip-dry shirts—to kill them. Everyone who knew Africa knew that.

However, it may not be irrelevant to its strengths that “White Lies” is one of those stories where the consciousness is an observer, slightly off to one side of the main action.

The most consistent sequence in this collection, The Consul's File, gets good mileage out of the fact that diplomats abroad are, by their trade, points of focus, people to whom others bring their stories: “But the stories were elusive, and I sometimes wondered what another writer would make of them.” The consul story-teller, in but not of his community, is the most characteristic Theroux type, and feeling at home with him, the writer seems to have a more creatively self-effacing relationship to the stories his character relates—as shown by such tales as “Dengué Fever” and “The Johore Murders.”

Often, though, Theroux's stories can lapse from their analysis of self-deception into an indulgence of something more like wheedling self-pity; one corollary of the writer's belief that “my stories are better than me” is that he can be like an over-fond parent to the creatures of his imagination. So many of his characters are allowed to make their own errors of value and judgment, whether first-person narrators or not; but even then, little in Theroux's handling of them allows for the possibility that their delusions might not actually be the most important things going on. Delusion, in Ian McEwan's excellent early stories, affords a narrative technique akin to the Browning monologue: the finely composed unease at being closer than we'd like to what emerge as pathological voices.

Theroux himself remarks: “I understand the demented people who late at night telephone strangers and whisper provocative words to them,” and monomania has been central to many of his achievements elsewhere, most obviously his best novel, The Mosquito Coast. In the stories, however, some characters can come over more as highbrow pub drunks, collaring the reader and not letting go until everything is told; Theroux doesn't have the skill of a Conrad in composing breathing-space around these unreliable figures. The satires on literary humbug have some good jokes about the business, as in “The Odd-Job Man,” in which an American hack academic Lowell Bloodworth name-drops and flannels his way around literary England:

There was an additional bonus: The Times Literary Supplement gave him one of Parson's collections to review, and years afterward Bloodworth said, “I do a little writing for the TLS,” often claiming credit for anonymous reviews he admired.

It's a good joke, but an obvious one; by the same token, Theroux's stories do not always uncover fresh perspectives on the familiar or exotic lives of which they treat. Such characters have their stories like anyone else, for sure: but it is the saving disgrace of the emotionally self-indulgent that people tend to find them out fairly quickly.

Jonathan Mirsky (review date 25 April 1997)

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SOURCE: Mirsky, Jonathan. “Handing It Over—and Afterwards.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4908 (25 April 1997): 22.

[In the following positive review, Mirsky praises Theroux's attention to sensual details in Kowloon Tong.]

Joseph Conrad said his “task” was “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all to make you see.” In Kowloon Tong, his latest novel, Paul Theroux uses both his sets of eyes—the travel writer's and the novelist's—to apply himself to Conrad's great task. The setting is Hong Kong, a year before what the hero's mother refers to as “the Chinese Take-away” on July 1, 1997.

Theroux can turn something which is ordinary in Hong Kong, such as eating the steamed chicken feet devoured in their tens of thousands every day, into the actions of a torturer. Mr Hung, who probably is exactly that, and is certainly a murderer, “went on cramming the chicken foot into his mouth, finishing it off with his teeth. He spat a knuckle of gristle onto his plate. … His face was so contorted by his chewing that he seemed to have no eyes.” He leans towards a terrified young woman, whom he will kill later that night, leaving no trace, and says, “I want to eat your foot.”

Theroux is good at something more than this. A coarse novelist would have made Kowloon Tong into a paradigmatic story of “colonialism bad, Chinese rule worse”; Theroux, however, is primarily interested in the characters in a scene. He describes minutely and freshly what is wholly unnoticed by his central character, Neville “Bunt” Mullard, a forty-three-year-old Englishman who was born in Hong Kong where he lives with his mother, Betty from Balham. Bunt drives to work along the same route every day and notices nothing. “The city was no more real to him than the signs, which he could not read, the Cantonese language which was just a grating noise that did not resemble human speech.” Theroux tells us what lies outside the car window.

Theroux has a devil of an ear for language. The ghastly Betty calls the local people “Chinky-chonks,” and says “nuckoo samwidge” for knuckle sandwich, or fist. “Nothing personal,” she says to a Chinese host. “But we don't touch Chinese food. Never did. All the grease, all the glue. And it's always so wet. Makes me want to spew.” One of Bunt's Filipino girls says that if they married she would make him a good “wipe.”

Bunt runs the successful firm of Imperial Stitching, inherited from his father, which makes blazer badges. He knows the names of none of his employees—except the young woman he uses sexually in his office—and he is amazed to learn, one day, that China is so close that one of his men has been across the border, bought a flat and returned, all in the same morning. Bunt and Betty are virtually married. They listen to an ancient Roberts radio, watch a Bush television, and all their bathroom fixtures are Twyford Adamant. Like his father, Bunt belongs to the Hong Kong Club and the Cricket Club, runs a 1958 Rover and eats “oaties.” He likes greasy bacon sandwiches, especially after quick sex with Wanchai bar girls in back booths or filthy Macao hotels. Whatever Bunk knows about the Chinese he has picked up from Wang, the Mullards' houseboy, exactly Bunt's age and the son of his amah, from whom Bunt learned his very first words, “nee-nee”—breasts. Like Wang, Bunt hates body hair, mistakes melted cheese for pig meat, and has a “horror of maggots, and any odd rice grain provoked his fear and he was violently ill.”

The main Chinese person in his life is Mr Chuck, who met Bunt's father in a public park where they were obsessively rolling the same piece of string into balls from opposite ends. “Snap,” Mr Mullard cried out, and “the two men, one English, the other Chinese, laughed at their predicament and their frugality and in that moment, seeing themselves as kindred souls, they became friends.” Before long, they became partners in Imperial Stitching, and until he dies—nastily, as it turns out—Mr Chuck is Bunt's mentor and partner; he leaves his share of the factory to the Englishman, to the fury of Mr Chuck's wailing relations who, even after many years, Bunt never knew about.

All this is funny, touching, pathetic and harmless—until the sinister Mr Hung shows up. At first, he seems like many other Chinese businessmen, the kind Bunt thinks he knows how to handle. Mr Hung makes a casual offer of £1 million for Imperial Stitching. Bunt insults him in an offhand, colonial way. Mr Hung presents him with a few cheap presents, then buys a sweater for the factory girl with whom Bunt is having a secret sexual relationship, and Bunt realizes Hung knows a great deal about him, “his movements, girl friends, the bars he frequented.” Mr Hung knows that a Eurasian barman in one of Bunt's haunts is Bunt's half-brother, the product of the kind of sleazy liaison with a bar girl that the late Wing-Commander Mullard, Bunt is amazed to hear, had engaged in.

Mr Hung turns nasty. He invites Bunt to one of his favourite Wanchai dives, the Pussy Cat, where Bunt tries to tell him there will be no deal and to stop the cheap presents. Mr Hung says, “I asked you to meet me here precisely because there are no more presents for you.” He reveals that he is connected to the Chinese army and that the next year, 1997, buying the factory for £1 million “will not be a suggestion, but a command, an order which you will obey.” When Bunt says, “You are threatening me.” Hung replies, “I am telling your fortune.”

After years of avoiding newspaper stories about the Chinese Take-away, Bunt gets the point: “This was the future of Hong Kong, a Chinese system of threats and bribes and crookery, whispers of dire consequences. … It would be like the old system, except that he would not be a U.K. citizen any more in a British colony, he would be a U.K. citizen in a Chinese Special Administrative Region.” Hung's message, Bunt grasps, is “do as I say or you're finished.” Bunt resists feebly. He falls in muddled love with the factory girl—before, his relationship had been strictly her head between his legs, followed by a solitary bacon sandwich. He gains a bit of insight into his sort-of marriage with his mother, deceiving her just as his father used to, while she conspires with Mr Hung to get “Top whack. A million quid.” The insights come too late. Mr Hung has murdered at least two people who were in his way, and his thugs are bundling Bunt—the factory girl has disappeared—and his mother into a car for the airport, in much the same way that Bunt used to get rid of employees. “‘See him out,’ Bunt would say, and the man would be propelled like a bundle down the stairs and into the street.” Now it is Bunt's turn: “as far as Hung was concerned he did not exist.” Soon after, the Mullards, seated in first-class but without any belongings, are ejected from Hong Kong, Imperial Stitching is razed by a wrecker's ball. The employees watch. “No one spoke Mr Hung's name. It seemed dangerous to do so. In any case he was not present for the demolition.”

In Kowloon Tong, we hear, feel and see the Mullards, with their insensible narrow conventions and set-piece conversations (“Sarny?” “I won't say no.”), and the Chinese around them, nearly invisible to Bunt and Betty, who fear that the Happy Valley race-track, where Betty has her cautious “flutters,” will soon be a ground for shooting people in the back of the neck. All this is far better than a political metaphor—but it happens to be one, too, for British-Chinese diplomacy of the past seventeen years. “It was as though, even before any negotiation, Hung regarded himself as owner of the factory and would not consider any alternative; that Bunt had to face the fact that he would have to hand it over.”

Elizabeth Powers (review date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Powers, Elizabeth. Review of My Other Life, by Paul Theroux. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 590.

[In the following review, Powers offers a mixed assessment of My Other Life, which she judges to be alternately “funny” and “off-putting.”]

My Other Life limns an artistic trajectory, which may or may not be that of Paul Theroux the chronicler of travel and of foreign places. It begins in the late 1960s in a leprosarium in Africa. The sheer ugliness of many of the people and places in the following pages has its source in Moyo. The lepers, in their fatalism and worldly indifference, are portrayed as parasites living off missionary charity, while the priests and nuns are themselves totally without vanity and without charm, indifferent to life beyond their narrow exercise of duty. Likewise the Theroux portrayed here, who is indifferent to real, lived life, slipping into various identities (e.g., donning the robes of the priest in Moyo), parasitically using all the people and situations he encounters as chapters for the novel we are reading. As in Moyo, nothing sacred or beautiful is spared in this pursuit.

Though the reader is commanded to read My Other Life as a novel, it touches stages of the actual life while transforming them into fiction. Marriage and family, the sole emotional anchoring of the first-person narrator, are grist for the writer's mill, serving importantly as the novel's frame. After Africa and Singapore (“Poetry Lessons”), we see Theroux settled in London, establishing his place in the literary firmament with novels like The Great Railway Bazaar and The Mosquito Coast. Chapter after chapter, however, reveals the fissures of a marriage, and in “Forerunners” we encounter his doppelgänger Andreas Vorlaufer, a travel writer who has already traversed the stages of Theroux's career, twenty years earlier. These include a divorce and a trip to the Pacific, on which Theroux is embarking at the novel's conclusion, after accepting the end of his marriage.

Some chapters (stories?) are funny; others are off-putting. The volume is best taken in toto, as the accumulation of a writer's life. Paul Theroux the person is unpleasant, but Paul Theroux the writer-in-becoming is very interesting. With the exception of the inhabitants of the leper colony, the people in these pages fail to separate fiction and life. “The Shortest Day of the Year” and “Traveler's Tale” concern the hilarious misperceptions that this failure produces. In the former story a murderous English lady is enraged at the Paul Theroux standing before her for getting her rug muddy, while waxing rapturous about the author of the books with whom she has fallen in love. In the latter he is confronted by an angry woman who has really lived the life of the places he has only visited and parasitically used. “The Writer and His Reader,” detailing an at-home dinner with an intoxicated Anthony Burgess, Theroux's own literary model, evokes anew the discrepancy between the writer and his work.

This disparity has already been enunciated in the book's prologue, concerning the author's uncle Hal, who claims to have done everything but who is really a liar. In person Hal is obnoxious, but when his novel appears it is praised for its sanity, elegance, and humanity.

William H. Pritchard (review date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Actual Fiction.” Hudson Review 50, no. 4 (winter 1998): 656–64.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchard praises the culinary aspects of the prose in Kowloon Tong.]

It was an extraordinary spring for fiction, as if all the established novelists, especially in this country, agreed to hand in their latest work by way of attesting to continuing vitality. Among others, Mailer, Bellow, Roth, and Pynchon—to name four senior citizens of the group—showed up at the fiction bazaar. (Only Updike decided to wait until fall.) Roth's American Pastoral seems to me major work, the premiere book of the year; Mailer has taken his lumps; and Pynchon, for reasons partly incomprehensible, spent a few weeks on the bestseller list. Whatever happened to all those symposia of dire predictions on the Future of the Novel? Vanished, along with worries about a Failure of Nerve, or Our Country and Our Culture. An occasional voice raises itself to deplore the “conservative” tenure of contemporary fiction, and for those in sympathy with the complaint they can turn again to the arty English cutup, Jeanette Winterson, whose sixth novel makes a fuss about how hard it is to tell a narrative (“That's how it was/is. The story falters, The firm surface gives way”). But most novelists at this century's end are getting on with the job, some of them in distinctly attractive ways. Here follow a few samples, in some cases commented on so briefly as scarcely to constitute a “review.” …

Paul Theroux's fifteenth novel [Kowloon Tong] (not to mention the shelf of travel books and collected stories) is about the hand-over of Hong Kong to China—the “Chinese take-away” as it's called in the novel, whose publication date couldn't of course have been more timely. Like his earlier The Family Arsenal and Picture Palace, it's an expert entertainment, in the Graham Greenish sense of that word—a suspenseful, darkish fiction (like Greene's The Ministry of Fear) whose characters don't invite or command our full sympathies the way, presumably, characters in a realistic novel do. Theroux's novel is about the gradual coming apart of Neville “Bunt” Mullard who, with a Chinese associate who dies at the outset of the book, has been running Imperial Stitching, a factory about to be taken-away by a sinister figure named Mr. Hung. Bunt is a bachelor, lives with his mother Betty, has a sex life consisting of effective and emotionless encounters with prostitutes or the occasional employee willing to render a service. The mother is jealous, spying, hatefully “English” in her ministrations to Bunt and eventually revealed to be comparably corrupt, as she and Mr. Hung collude to do Bunt out of the factory.

But plot or story isn't the main point, which, as always with Theroux, is the life of language. In Kowloon Tong, language is especially animated when it describes what and how people eat: “You're nid-nodding over your food,” says Betty to Bunt at breakfast; “you look a little peaky,” and she watches him closely as he eats “a soft-boiled egg, five rashers of streaky bacon, an oatie, half the papaya, two slices of toast to one of which she added jam, no soldiers.” In a memorably disgusting scene when Bunt against his will (he doesn't like Chinese food) has dinner with Mr. Hung, the latter goes to work on some chicken parts; “Brandy was gleaming on Mr. Hung's lips. He looked drunk, his face pinkish and raw, his eyes boiled, and he was smiling in a vicious way as he chewed with his mouth open.” No details are spared of this moveable feast:

Hung's elbows were thrust out, his blue tongue showed as he stuck his chopsticks into the dish of yellow meat and used them like pliers to grasp a fragment of chicken breast. Its white flesh was exposed when he left a bite mark on it, then he chewed and gagged and pursed his lips. Again, with a retching noise, he spat garbage onto the table.

Theroux has a pretty good time, it looks to me, with this culinary awfulness, and there's a similarly clinical disgust displayed at most Hong Kong things generally. Not a book that touches the heart, but one by a writer who knows exactly how to construct a novel, tell a story. …

David Crane (review date 21 March 1998)

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SOURCE: Crane, David. “Not a Very Jolly Lot.” Spectator 72, no. 2 (21 March 1998): 40.

[In the following review of The Collected Short Novels, Crane argues that Theroux's short fiction, while highly competent, is formulaic and unrelentingly morose when viewed cumulatively.]

Only the very best short-story writers measure up to the demands of a collected edition and these tales [The Collected Short Novels] might have best been left in their original volumes. Taken separately any one of them would suggest an author of real talent, and yet the effect of lumping them together is a disappointing sense that more is in fact less and the individual pieces are neither as good or original as one had remembered them.

This is all the more striking because here is a collection of stories that covers almost 30 years of Theroux's career, and ranges in setting from Puerto Rico to Mayfair, from the Deep South to Singapore and Hawaii. There is a darkening of tone and a narrative conciseness that certainly marks off the most recent from the earliest, but that apart, the overriding feeling is of a writer who hit his stride early and—in this genre at least—has gone on doing more or less the same thing ever since.

For an author, too, whose reputation rightly rests so much on his power of looking and interpreting, the landscapes of these tales have a curiously flat and anonymous quality about them. In ‘The Greenest Island’ the island background is successfully evoked to carry and deepen a tale of emotional constriction and failure, but all too often the scene-painting resembles little more than the colour notes on a preliminary sketch, reminders to the author of a sound or smell or texture of a place that never delivers quite the same charge to the reader.

For all that, however, there is no mistaking the atmosphere or characters of Theroux's fiction for anyone else's and what is most remarkable about this collection is its unrelenting consistency of vision. There is a knockabout quality about the early ‘Murder in Mount Holly’ that sets it apart, but after that first story Theroux's characters struggle helplessly for escape in a world that allows only the grimmest humour. It is a world in which Mayfair hookers indulge their delusions of freedom and power, and are savagely and cruelly disabused; in which Hawaiian strippers retreat into a private space beyond the greedy gaze of customers only to find even that violated: in which women are beaten, betrayed, pawed, photographed naked through transparent chairs and sodomised, while pathetic males—lecherous Arabs, paedophile priests, callow writers—take brutal revenge for their own sexual and emotional inadequacies.

There is such a familiar and measured rhythm about these stories, too, such a feeling of well-crafted inevitability about their successive end-games, that his victims' attempts at freedom are made to seem all the sadder. In a foreword to the collection Theroux writes that these tales are meant to disturb, but they can never have been intended to depress in the way they do. It is again a matter of seeing them together in a collected edition. By himself Mr Gibbon, the ludicrous, racist, commie-hating geriatric of Mount Holly might be bearable. Mr Gibbon followed by Paula, Lauren and Linzi is not. ‘Duval explored the neighbourhood and brought back stories,’ Theroux writes in ‘The Greenest Island’:

The people were damaged and crazy, or else very sad … There were homeless boys and old women who slept on the marble benches in the plaza, under the statue of Columbus … There was a one-legged man who wore a red scarf on his head and when he paused to beg hooked his stump over the bar of his crutch and glared like a pirate and demanded money. There was a legless man who rode up the Calle de San Francisco in a low clattering cart, pulling himself along with his hands.

Disturbing, perhaps, but compared to Theroux's own cast, quite a jolly lot. These are all highly efficient pieces of fiction, there is no question about that. The plotting is always neat and well-paced, the writing calm, uncluttered and assured. But six stories—400-plus pages—without a single character, victim or bully, that one can like or care about is going to present many readers with a genuine if not very sophisticated problem.

James Knudsen (review date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Knudsen, James. Review of Kowloon Tong, by Paul Theroux. World Literature Today 72, no. 2 (spring 1998): 374.

[In the following review, Knudsen offers a mixed assessment of Kowloon Tong, which he finds excessively “dreary,” but redeemed in part by Theroux's observational skill.]

Through Paul Theroux's long and varied career as a writer, he has shown himself to be an acute observer of foreign cultures. Whether he is recording his railway experiences everywhere from England to Asia, or exploring, through fiction, the lives of characters who find themselves for personal or professional reasons in cultures not their own, Theroux never shies from strong opinions and often provides his readers with rare insights and local color.

Kowloon Tong, subtitled “A Novel of Hong Kong,” is no exception. Set on the eve of the handover of Hong Kong by the British back to the Chinese, it explores the cultural zeitgeist of British settlers living a life that is more British than the one being lived back home and the Chinese who are ready to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs.

While the premise of the novel is intriguing, it is difficult to imagine a more disagreeable cast of characters. Neville “Bunt” Mullard's family has been in Hong Kong for a generation, co-owners with a local Chinese man of a factory that produces stitched insignias. Mullard is a mother-obsessed drudge who fears change but ultimately comes to embrace one of his Chinese workers as his one chance at salvation. His mother, a racist at heart and greedy to boot, is only too happy to sell their family business to the mysterious Mr. Hung, who is also, perhaps, a murderer. The unfolding of the plot does not involve much in the way of suspense. Instead, the reader sees more and more, often repeated, evidence of how the British residents have failed to understand the Chinese (mainly by willfully ignoring them in favor of preserving their own imported culture) and how the Chinese have assimilated the British only to the extent that they could take advantage of them. Regardless of Deng Xiaoping's pledge that life will go on as before, life in China will clearly be different. It is hard to imagine, though, that it will be particularly worse or better, all things considered, than the life portrayed here. As Bunt himself thinks, “Hong Kong was just an anthill with a Union Jack flying over it. The flag was changing but Hong Kong would remain an anthill.”

It is difficult not to read this novel as an allegory of life in Hong Kong under British rule, and not just because of the subtitle. In the end, the “selfish and sneering and greedy and spineless” British come off looking like dull, narrow-minded opportunists, whereas the Chinese, though “always out of focus and the nearer you got to them, the harder they were to see,” seem infinitely more human while not completely trustworthy. As involving as this message may sound in summary, the book itself is often repetitious and almost unrelievedly dreary. In the end, Theroux's eye for exotic detail is Kowloon Tong's central saving grace.

Richard Eder (review date 25 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Big Chill.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 October 1998): 2.

[In the following review, Eder describes Sir Vidia's Shadow as fascinating yet deeply flawed by Theroux's recriminations against Naipaul.]

Suppose that James Boswell, resenting his own long deference, had appended to his immortal account of Samuel Johnson a sneering denunciation of his subject's work, arrogance, bad table manners and physical ugliness. Or that Robert Louis Stevenson, saddle-sore and irked by some final bit of stubbornness, had ended his engaging Travels with a Donkey with a savage lambasting of the furry Modestine.

The damage down the centuries would not be done to Johnson or Modestine. It would be done to the vital balance of two remarkable books and to their authors.

Paul Theroux has been condemned for writing an account of his longtime friend and mentor, V. S. Naipaul, that some critics have called “pathography,” Joyce Carol Oates' clever term for a fashion in biography that portrays the warts—subject and all.

Sir Vidia's Shadow is not pathography but something better and, disastrously, unnecessarily, worse. For most of its length it is a complicated but ultimately exhilarating portrait of its complicated subject. Theroux, whose acerb work has been helped and influenced by the acerb Naipaul, is a thorn bush writing about a thorn bush. The prickles fit together in complementary fashion, though, producing an odd semblance of velvet. Until the end, that is, when Theroux looses a lethal blast of defoliant. It is his own leaves that drop off.

There is painfulness, to be sure, from the very start of the long relationship. Painfulness, inherent to Naipaul's own writing, particularly to his extensive nonfictional explorations of the Third World, is inherent in Theroux's as well. Like Naipaul's, his wanderings (The Great Railway Bazaar and others) illuminate through estrangement rather than sympathy, and the result can be to wither rather than to expand. Whereas Naipaul, in both fiction and nonfiction, can rise through anger to genius, Theroux does not rise past intelligence.

Ironically, it may be in Sir Vidia's Shadow that he rises the furthest—for a while. Affection and admiration keep his angers off-balance, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they provide a difficult, transcending balance.

In 1963 Theroux was an itinerant 23-year-old American teaching at the University of Uganda and struggling to become a writer. In the provincial circle of expatriate teachers, the arrival of Naipaul, a London literary celebrity, was a considerable event.

Theroux and Naipaul quickly hit it off. Naipaul was gratified by Theroux's reciting a passage from “The Mystic Masseur” and his uninhibited eagerness to learn from him. Perhaps, to this Trinidadian so morbidly attuned to British snobbery, there was the fact that Theroux, as an American, was free from the tiny class codes and twitches of his expatriate university colleagues. Theroux, looking for a mentor and a glimpse of how you got into the literary world, welcomed Naipaul's interest.

Theroux became Naipaul's companion and guide on expeditions into the back country; in turn, the Trinidadian shared with him the intransigences, furies and visions that went into his own hard and solitary progress from obscure island boyhood to London literary stardom.

Ruthless with students' work at the university—he agreed to judge a writing contest on condition that the highest award would be third prize—Naipaul was both demanding and encouraging with Theroux's efforts. The support became mutual: In the decades that followed, each man could count on the other's appreciation and understanding, an exchange that grew more even-handed once Theroux became successful.

There are priceless scenes of Naipaul on his back-country tours in full safari regalia and spouting patronizing ex abruptos about a country whose future, he insisted, was, once again, “the bush.” The most sympathetic character he encounters, in fact, is a fulminating ex-major from the Indian Service who runs a hotel up-country. The two struggle happily to out-Blimp each other.

Hosted by the Indian ambassador in Nairobi, Naipaul urges that Kenya's ports be shelled in retaliation for measures taken against Indian shopkeepers. “Who would do this?” the ambassador politely inquired. “The Indian Navy,” was the reply.

If he often sounds like Evelyn Waugh, it is because his intransigence is both comedy and abyss. Arriving at a frontier town, the two find nowhere to stay until the American consul makes a guesthouse available. Naipaul tells Theroux he is lucky to have a country whose embassy would help him. What about your country? Theroux asks. “I have no country,” Naipaul replies, and it is the heart of this colonial writer's darkness.

The African section is followed by Theroux's trip to London. Naipaul puts him up, introduces him to his publisher, praises him and takes him to dinners with London's literary lights. Here and in the years to come, when the two correspond from different parts of the world or exchange visits in England, there are abrasivenesses and small estrangements. Theroux is critical of Naipaul's lordly treatment of his first wife Patsy (Theroux owns to having fantasies about her; spookily, Naipaul writes a story in which a young writer has an affair with the wife of an older writer friend.)

He is hurt, or at least puzzled, by Naipaul's alternate tenderness—“Paul, Paul, Paul,” is his habitual tripartite greeting, or “Tell me, tell me, tell me”—and chill. When Theroux's marriage breaks up, Naipaul says only: “You'll be all right.” Theroux feels wounded, yet what greater truth, one wonders, could a writer of Naipaul's cold darkness bestow?

He feels used, at times; most comically when Naipaul insists on dining at the most expensive restaurants with never a show of helping with the bill. At one point, still poor, Theroux goes into near shock after a lunch where Naipaul has him order a Burgundy that sets him back a month's rent.

The reader is alternately amused and appalled, both by Naipaul's erratic behavior and by Theroux's almost equally erratic reactions. Yet somehow, endearingly, the book, up to the end, is a complex fabric, a tapestry—granted, in cross-stitches—depicting the rich companionship of two difficult men. The wisest sentence in the book, in fact, is the way Theroux sums up the companionship:

Friendship arises less from an admiring love of strength than a sense of gentleness, a suspicion of weakness. It is compassionate intimacy, a powerful kindness, and a knowledge of imperfection.

If only he had been satisfied with this. But Naipaul's wife dies; at his request, Theroux writes a glowing memorial. A few weeks later Naipaul marries a Pakistani writer; and then, as can happen, the new wife begins to sweep out some of the old connections. Theroux, already bitterly hurt, is furious to discover evidence of the sweep: a used-book catalog listing several of the books he had inscribed to Naipaul.

A hostile, disjointed letter arrives from the wife; nothing but silence from Naipaul. Theroux might have written of this as the sad loss, the marital abduction of a friendship, and ended with an elegiac epitaph. Instead he ends with a screed and diatribe and a copy of his answer to the wife. His prose grows as wild and ravening as hers, and he turns it, furthermore, upon Naipaul.

Meeting him by chance on the street—Naipaul pulls away, embarrassed; what else can he do?—Theroux writes of his ugliness, his blackness, his huge nose, his cruel mouth. He portrays him as “scuttling off” like an insect. Furthermore, he decides, as a writer, he was “my distinct inferior.”

At one point, Theroux had told of spotting on safari a lioness' rear paw print just beyond the spot on which she had relieved herself. “Retromingent (urinating rearward)” he tells a companion, hoping to impress. It describes his lovely, defaced memoir as well.

James Bowman (review date 26 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Bowman, James. “Shadow Boxing.” National Review (26 October 1998): 54–55.

[In the following review, Bowman asserts that Sir Vidia's Shadow is an interesting memoir, but a poor display of Theroux's self-pity and anger.]

If only Paul Theroux had consulted Dr. Laura Schlessinger. When she gets a call from someone who wants to know what to do about a new stepmother, recently married to a widowed or divorced father and now interfering with or even destroying the old intimacy of parent and child, her advice to the child in question is: “Honeybabe, don't pick a fight with the woman he's sleeping with.” Mr. Theroux is a clever man and often a good writer, but he could use a little of Dr. Laura's common sense. When his surrogate father, his literary father, Sir Vidia Naipaul, remarried two months after the death of his wife, Pat, in 1996, it should have been obvious that the thirty-year-old friendship between the two men was bound to change. Their half-lifelong intimacy had not included Nadira, the new Lady Naipaul (as she prefers to be called). Also, Theroux had been close to Pat and had even been asked by Vidia to write her obituary, which made another reason for the new broom to sweep him away.

Not long after the marriage, Theroux found inscribed copies of his own books which had been presented to Vidia and Pat Naipaul advertised for sale in a rare-books catalogue. He faxed without comment a copy of the catalogue page to Naipaul and received in return a note from Nadira accusing him of slights to and betrayals of the friendship. A further faxed appeal to Naipaul over his wife's head went unanswered. Finally, a year later, the two men met by chance in a London street. Naipaul had nothing to say to him but “Take it on the chin and move on.” But Theroux couldn't “move on.” Instead of listening to his son, who told him, “Dad, you're obsessing,” he decided to strike back by writing this book.

It was a bad decision, at least from a literary point of view. The soap-opera element to the story ensured that Sir Vidia's Shadow would be prominently reviewed and talked about; all this will probably translate into larger-than-usual sales. But it also means that the book cannot fight free of the banality of its origins. The final chapters are an embarrassment—full of self-pity, scatological barbs directed at the loathsome, “nightmarish” image of Lady Naipaul, and childish petulance toward Sir Vidia himself. “I had admired his talent,” writes Theroux. “After a while I admired nothing else. Finally I began to wonder about his talent, seriously to wonder, and doubted it when I found myself skipping pages in his more recent books. In the past I would have said the fault was mine. Now I knew that he could be the monomaniac in print that he was in person.”

Even if Naipaul were wrong about all the many things that Theroux suddenly discovered he was wrong about (“He was mistaken about so much”), Theroux was not the man to say so. The literary and intellectual judgment was tainted (a favorite Naipaul word) by his personal hurt and anger, as even the slightest degree of detachment from these feelings would have revealed to him. It is the more a pity because in its earlier chapters, before the bitterness predominates, the book offers a fascinating portrait of the plain V. S. Naipaul, whom Theroux knew as a fellow exile in post-independence, pre–Idi Amin Uganda in the mid 1960s, and thereafter mainly in England.

I am not one of those who think Theroux is guilty of “betrayal” for revealing, say, that his former friend once invited him, an impecunious freelancer, to lunch at the posh Connaught Hotel in London, ordered an expensive wine, and then stuck him with the bill—which came to something not far short of all the disposable money he had. Or that Sir Vidia accepted his knighthood after having ridiculed the very idea of such an honor for years. The portrait would not be worth having unless it came with warts and all, and Theroux is enough of a disciplined writer to show us a more attractive side of the wise, waspish, finicky little man whom he loved for so long.

In fact, had Vidia rather than Pat died in 1996, Theroux might have been the discount-store Boswell to his discount-store Johnson. He seems to have remembered their conversations in almost Boswellian detail and offers us many obiter dicta of an almost Johnsonian intelligence, if not wit. Naipaul as he is revealed in these pages is rarely brilliant and even more rarely funny, but he has a remarkable insight into people and politics and literature, and he is always honest and often profound. Above all, he stands fearlessly apart from intellectual fashion and political correctness. A lot of the embarrassment which is supposed to have accrued to him as a result of this memoir is owing to its reports of his occasional mild racial slurs or remarks like this one to Theroux's then wife, which Theroux now pretends to be horrified by: “I am speaking about this bogus feminism, the way it makes women trivial-minded … Women long for witnesses, that is all. Witnesses to their pleasure or their distress.”

Theroux's later accusations against his friend of misogyny have rather too much the sound of a goody two-shoes summoning the “gender” police in order to settle a private score. After the final snub he writes that he felt “liberated at last … He had freed me, he had opened my eyes, he had given me a subject.” In reality, Theroux is not “liberated” but cast into the intellectual prison of his own bitterness and hurt feelings, and an otherwise promising “subject” is spoiled as a result.

Frederic Raphael (review date 5 December 1998)

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SOURCE: Raphael, Frederic. “Biting the Hand That Rarely Paid for Lunch.” Spectator 281, no. 8887 (5 December 1998): 48.

[In the following review, Raphael offers a positive assessment of Sir Vidia's Shadow.]

Writers' friendships are often written on water; their enmities are chiselled in stone. Disillusionment and betrayal are harpies that sup on scraps. Dickens broke with Thackeray; Wain with Amis; Scott Fitzgerald with Hemingway. Ernest was probably the shittiest of the breed: he viciously parodied his mentor, Sherwood Anderson, for the trivially pressing reason that he needed to get out of a contract with the publisher they shared. In Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War, he tried to shop John Dos Passos to the NKVD, perhaps because he feared that his might be a more durable talent. Love affairs between authors can last, as is proved by the rapturous, pretty well unruptured mutual admiration of Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller (trust two ladies' men to wind up metaphorically in bed together). An older man sometimes patronises a younger, as Flaubert did Guy de Maupassant, or beds him without benefit of metaphor, as Verlaine did Rimbaud, without gratitude turning to spite. However, as Sir Vidia's Shadow proves, there is nothing like having sat at a man's feet for making one announce that they were made of clay.

Paul Theroux's friendship with quondam (now Sir) V. S. Naipaul is billed as being ‘across five continents’ and this account of its grateful origins and bitter aftertaste is one of those I-wish-I'd-thought-of-that extensions of prose narrative of which its author is a master. It starts in Uganda, where the unpublished twenty-something Theroux is teaching and encounters the already acclaimed and elderly-seeming Naipaul (a decade his senior) on one of the foreign tours to which he is grumblingly addicted. Outdoing his friend Kingsley Amis, who hated it anywhere but here, Naipaul proves to like it nowhere. His ‘native’ Trinidad merely confirms that he is a displaced Brahmin, but India is never his Zion. He shares his younger brother Shiva's disdain for the so-called Third World and its sleazy morals, but neither fraternity nor common contempts make him sympathetic to the ‘laziness’ of his sibling, who died very young of heart disease.

Vidia endears himself to the young Theroux by the unfailing means of being the first to salute him as ‘a writer.’ This long, unfalteringly seductive, and/because bilious, non-fiction novel burns with the accurate rage of a scorned disciple. Judas and Theroux kiss with the same disappointed fury. Since Naipaul bad-mouths everyone and everything, Theroux seems immune to a charge of unwarranted betrayal. First, however, he makes us understand—if not quite share—his infatuation, despite his subject's want of any symptoms of charm, warmth or generosity. Naipaul is shown as being pitilessly cruel to his wife—whose breasts the young Theroux, quite a cocksman in his hot African youth, fancies more keenly than does her separately-bedroomed husband—and he remains callous, we are promised, when she is dying of cancer.

Theroux is almost as harsh with himself as he is with Naipaul; as elsewhere, he does not confuse self-portraiture with narcissism, despite a sentimental spot for his juvenile ambitions. He takes warranted pride in having survived by his wits and the pen that makes them marketable. A key moment comes when he travels with Vidia to Oxford (about which Naipaul whinges as usual):

The train soothed and comforted me and stimulated my imagination … I had made a discovery; I would gladly go anywhere by train.

So is bestsellerdom conceived; since then Theroux has made a fortune by going pretty well everywhere accessible by rail, often with readably crotchety consequences which echo his old friend.

Theroux's literary and personal life have been bumpier than his preferred means of travel. His autobiography is snappy with things we have all, mutatis mutandis, been through. He is treated to a vinous lunch by a smug publisher who then rejects his new novel. He gets to know bitchy insiders:

‘Stephen Tennant is the March Hare and the Red Queen rolled into one,’ [Julian] Jebb said, and cupped his hand close to his mouth and whispered in my ear in his affected American accent, ‘Faggot.’

Poor Julian! He so wanted to be big and handsome and butch.

Theroux's own departure from London, and his wife, is slyly covered with an implicitly endorsing quotation from Larkin. As for increasing fame and self-assurance, he emphasises them both by willingness to bite the hand which he used to feed (Naipaul is portrayed as being as reluctant to pick up the tab as our greatest living publisher) and by the increasing sententiousness of his obiter dicta: human friendship, he concludes,

arises less from an admiring love of strength than a sense of gentleness, a suspicion of weakness. It is compassionate intimacy, a powerful kindness, and a knowledge of imperfection.

Fortunately, such verbose and questionable conceits are rare. What is deliciously evident is vindictive joy in the writer's lonely, often vengeful trade. His desecrating depiction of a sacred monster (whose novels I have found to be little more than coy curiosities) culminates in, and was perhaps detonated by, the discovery that Sir Vidia had sold off the inscribed copies of Theroux's work presented to him on publication down the years. Their last, chance meeting in Gloucester Road is described with all the curt thoroughness of the emancipated slave:

‘Do we have something to discuss?’ ‘No.’ He had almost broken away. He was moving crabwise, crouching a bit, cramming his hat down. ‘What do we do then?’ ‘Take it on the chin and move on.’

When Flaubert gave Boule de Suif his imprimatur, he acknowledged that his protégé had come of age. So here Theroux proves to have nothing left to learn from the man whose shadow weighed so heavily on him for so long. Gore Vidal, move over; never was gall more palatably served.

Brooke Allen (review date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Sorcerers' Apprentices.” Hudson Review 52, no. 1 (spring 1999): 150–56.

[In the following negative excerpt, Allen expresses contempt for what she sees as the hostility, jealousy, and hypocrisy in Sir Vidia's Shadow.]

The appearance in bookstores of the bound, published version of the Starr report mere hours after its release is yet another proof that something in our culture has radically changed: not so much the death of outrage, as William Bennett would have it, as the death of privacy, or of simple decency. The fact that those who govern feel that it's not only necessary but perfectly all right for us to know every detail of someone's sex life appears to be quite unprecedented. Is it even legal to expose these facts? If not, what legal recourse is there? If Bill Clinton were a mere private citizen, mightn't he himself file a lawsuit to protect his privacy?

The same questions inevitably pop up in regard to certain recent memoirs. That which has made the biggest impression on the public is Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow, the story of the author's thirty-year friendship with the older, more established author V. S. Naipaul and its very sticky end. Theroux, of course, is a past master at exposing the intimate lives of friends and loved ones to public scrutiny. His companion novels My Other Life and My Secret History both feature protagonists who are to the ordinary reader—and even to the informed one—indistinguishable from Theroux himself, and characters who seem exactly like his ex-wife, Anne, and other family members. Anne Theroux and Paul's brother Alexander have complained, but to no avail: the novels, Theroux insisted, were fiction—art—and if you confuse them with reality, you must be some kind of a philistine.

The premise of Sir Vidia's Shadow has outraged a substantial portion of the literary community, but Theroux has been quick to claim the moral high ground: not, this time, by arguing that his book is art and therefore subject only to the dictates of art, but by insisting that it is “the truth,” and that it was, after all, his friend Naipaul himself who always insisted that only the truth can set you free. “Naipaul always said, Don't prettify it, and The greatest writing is a disturbing vision offered from a position of strength—aspire to that, and Tell the truth.

We should all be able to agree that truth must be the object both of fiction and nonfiction; but what purpose is the writer asking the truth to serve? Why, in other words, has Theroux written Sir Vidia's Shadow? Why is it important that we know the truth about Naipaul and his nasty little habits? For while I have no doubt that what Theroux writes about Naipaul is, if one-sided, the truth, I feel at the same time that he has been less than truthful about his own motives in writing the book.

In print and on the podium, Theroux has given rationales that sound impeccably high-minded. The book was a technical challenge: “I realized that there was no model for it. Some books existed in which a writer described his or her relationship with another older writer, but these were always glowing accounts …,” he wrote in the New York Times Book Review (November 1, 1998). Also, he'd like us to think that he really meant the book to be a tribute. Naipaul is fanatical, yes, but we are reminded that “the best writers are the most fanatical; so the truest portrait of a writer can never be a study of virtue” (ibid). This is true, but it fails to convince this reader, at any rate, that the composition and publication of Sir Vidia's Shadow was anything but an extremely hostile act.

“I'm not a spurned lover in writing this book,” Theroux said in a recent lecture. And possibly he's not, in spite of the rude end his long-time friend put to the relationship, cutting off communications and, by way of explanation, simply advising Theroux to “Take it on the chin and move on.” But another reason for Theroux's hostility springs irresistibly to mind, and that is professional jealousy. Theroux himself refers to his younger self, in relation to Naipaul, as a sorcerer's apprentice, and although there are only eleven years' age difference between the two writers, the relationship was from the beginning one of master and disciple. The problem was that in the intervening years the disciple, however famous and successful he became, never quite caught up with the master. It is by now evident that Paul Theroux will never, like Naipaul, be a “great writer,” Nobel Prize material. He remains what he was twenty years ago: a competent author of middlebrow potboilers, and a readable and justly-acclaimed travel writer.

This is not the first time Theroux has written about Naipaul. Back during the days of his youthful discipleship he wrote an academic study, V. S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work. Some years later he profiled Naipaul in the London newspaper, The Telegraph. After the appearance of that article Theroux noticed that “some people had come to like [Naipaul] on the basis of the piece, others had said they found him insufferable, on the same evidence.” I suspect that the same will be true of this book, in spite of the press's prudish squeals of disgust over what is just a little too easy to interpret as racism, snobbery, and elitism on Naipaul's part.

There is, for example, his habit of referring to everyone he disrespects as “infies.” When the two writers first meet as teachers at Makerere University in Uganda, Naipaul dismisses as infies all of their colleagues, jawing away asininely in the staff-room. It is to be sure a cruel and ruthless way to speak, but don't most of us, in our heart of hearts, know an infy when we see one? After Naipaul's departure from Makerere, Theroux has to admit that he has lost most of his pleasure in the place; looking around him he sees, in spite of himself, through Naipaul's eyes, and what he sees are—it cannot be denied—infies.

Naipaul's pronouncements on what he observes in Africa are brutal, and in setting them down in print Theroux knows very well that the p.c. police will swoop down on Naipaul with cries of “Racist!” Yet what Naipaul was saying was much more complex than mere racism, as Theroux is well aware. Africa, Naipaul thought, was (this was 1966) “an obscene continent, fit only for second-rate people. Second-rate whites with second-rate ambitions, who are prepared, as in South Africa, to indulge in the obscenity of disciplining Africans.” The teachers at Makerere were “overpaid expatriates patronizing Africans and giving the impression of imparting an education. … The worst of it was the tameness of it all, the absence of criticism, the complacency, the extravagant way African effort was praised.” This praise Naipaul referred to as “Blackwash.”

Theroux is generous and honest enough to admit that Naipaul's uncompromising attitude came from his “impossibly high standards. He said there was no point in having standards unless they were high. He did not compromise. He expected the best, in writing, in speaking, in behavior, in reading.” Yet Naipaul's dismissive remarks sting, as Theroux means them to. He refers collectively to Arabs as “Mr. Woggy”; he encourages his African houseboy unwittingly to demean himself; occasionally he gets in a temper and takes the wheel of the car provided by Makerere, humiliating his driver by making him ride in the back seat. There is a pronounced sadistic streak in Naipaul that his one-time disciple can't resist pointing out.

But if Naipaul has a sadistic side, so too has Theroux, although in this memoir he invariably portrays himself as naive, kindly, well-disposed toward all the world. It is in his depiction of Naipaul's wife Pat that Theroux really gives himself away. Pat is in every way her husband's foil, gentle, polite, softhearted and yielding, an irresistible target for a sadistic husband, and Naipaul, of course, bullies her. From time to time she breaks into “helpless blubbing, either as the result of a disagreement or simply because of some sorrowful sight—broken shoes, a snotty-nosed child, a woman bereft, a gardener laboring on his knees.” Her abjectness—the “tears on her pretty protruding lips”—is erotic not only to the husband but to the young acolyte as well: “I did not know why, but her weeping made me want to hold her and fondle her breasts.”

Sorcerer's apprentice indeed! During one long stint at a Kenyan hotel, Naipaul, hard at work on a book, asks the younger man to “Keep Pat company,” having incidentally remarked not too long before that he himself had given up sex. Theroux, rightly or wrongly, interprets this as an invitation to embark on an affair with the pretty and pliable Pat, although he claims to have been too shy to avail himself of the opportunity. (Pat, he hints, would have been only too eager.) Throughout the two men's friendship, to judge from Theroux's account, poor Pat was an object of mixed lust and contempt not just to her husband but also to his eager pupil.

Theroux accuses Naipaul of misogyny, and points to numerous incidents in his work that confirm this diagnosis. Yet long before this one, Theroux's own books had always struck me as being full of gratuitous misogyny: the view of women in Girls at Play, to take one example, is twisted and unmistakably hostile. Throughout Sir Vidia's Shadow, though, Theroux paints himself as someone who holds the fair sex in the highest regard. He claims to have been deeply shocked by the scene in A Bend in the River in which Salim beats his lover and spits between her legs; his disgust was such, he says, that as one of the judges for the Booker Prize that year he decided to vote against the book, the disclosure of which fact can only have been calculated to enrage Naipaul, and which was not strictly essential to the narrative.

Theroux has done his level best to harm his former friend, all the while whitewashing his own motives by reiterating how extraordinary, how brilliant, how very remarkable Naipaul was. It is a clever performance but also cheap and hypocritical. One emerges from the experience of reading Sir Vidia's Shadow thinking that while it must have been uncomfortable and expensive to be Naipaul's friend, it must also have been invigorating, and that he has proved in the final reckoning to be a far more provocative and intellectually valuable writer than Theroux himself. The lessons he offered Theroux—and there were many—constituted ample payment for all the lunch and dinner checks he failed to pick up.

“Every good book suggests that the writer, however painful its subject, has arrived at some inward peace about it, some inner resolution, even of anger and despair, even though this peace and resolution is purely temporary,” Naipaul told Theroux. By this criterion Sir Vidia's Shadow, positively throbbing with rage and wounded ego, has badly failed. …

Both [Lillian] Hellman and Naipaul belong to that category of writer who consciously creates a personal myth. Hellman's was that of the tough, hard-drinking, hard-loving, morally uncompromising, independent “new woman.” Naipaul has fostered an image of the prototypical post-colonial man without a country, the permanent alien. “I am an exile,” he would intone lugubriously—and perhaps pretentiously—in Theroux's presence.

The images are superhuman, the real writers only too human. The younger writers, driven, I suspect, by professional jealousy, are eager to debunk the myths by exposing the mythmakers as being every bit as selfish, petty, and craven as the rest of us.

Ultimately it is a futile exercise. One of Naipaul's passionate beliefs was that, so far as literary merit is concerned, truth is the daughter of time: “That was his greatest strength, his unwavering belief that writing was fair—that a good book cannot fail, that it will ultimately be recognized as good; that a bad book will eventually be seen as junk, no matter what happens in the short run. Only the long run mattered. There was justice in writing.” He is probably right: in which case the pinpricks of a Theroux or a [Rosemary] Mahoney, however painful, will not make any difference in the end.

I suspect that Lillian Hellman was overrated during her lifetime, and that, the long run having begun, Mahoney's book [A Likely Story] is a manifestation of the refocusing process. In the next century, Hellman will not be considered a major author; but she will still be a significant figure in her period and will continue to have her fair share of readers. The jury is still out on Naipaul; I, for one, think him almost as fine a writer as he thinks himself, and that is high praise indeed.

Theroux's claim that there was no model or precedent for Sir Vidia's Shadow is correct, but the fact that it was so quickly followed by A Likely Story would seem to indicate that a new genre is in the making. That a reputable publisher like Doubleday would publish something as trashy as A Likely Story—and for all its recondite vocabulary and literary pretensions, trashy it is—means that this sort of very personal exposé is now considered generally acceptable, as it would not have been twenty years ago.

Bruce King (review date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of Sir Vidia's Shadow, by Paul Theroux. World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 343.

[In the following review, King focuses on Theroux's descriptions of V. S. Naipaul as a man and as a writer in Sir Vidia's Shadow.]

Sir Vidia's Shadow is subtitled A Friendship Across Five Continents and concerns Paul Theroux's relationship with V. S. Naipaul since 1966, when Theroux, a university lecturer in Uganda, met Naipaul, who had been sent by an American foundation as a visiting professor, writer, or intellectual—which is not clear, as Naipaul refused to teach and used the time for his own writing, finishing The Mimic Men (1967). This appears to have been the most rewarding time of the friendship between the two. Eleven years younger, Theroux, who was in love with Africa and an African woman, was Naipaul's opposite, guide, and pupil. Theroux was part of the Transition circle, but not otherwise known or much published. Naipaul was already the author of prizewinning novels, famous for A House for Mr Biswas (1961), although apparently unknown to the local English Department and unread by those whom he met, with the exception of a cranky Englishman, an old India hand who had retired to Kenya to run a hotel and insulted everyone except Naipaul, whose novels he had read and admired. Naipaul completed The Mimic Men at his hotel, and used the hotel keeper and his inn in In a Free State, a novella partly based on a long car ride Theroux and Naipaul took together at the time when Milton Obote attacked the Kabaka of Buganda, destroying the traditional power structure that had survived British colonialism, so that the new national government would be the only source of power.

Naipaul taught Theroux how to be a writer, made him revise an article ten times, then told him to reduce it by half. He insisted on honesty, transparency, making each word clear, avoiding tricks and mannerisms. Naipaul believed in Theroux, treated him as a younger writer learning how to write. Such faith was important to Theroux; Naipaul looked down on almost everyone else, white or black, as inferior. He viewed whites in Africa as second-rate, the men probably homosexuals seeking black youths, the Africans still primitives with a veneer of Western culture which would soon be lost. Naipaul's concern was with the Indians who were making no plans for the consequence of African rule and seemed unaware that soon they would be expelled, their wealth confiscated.

Sir Vidia's Shadow is a fascinating book, fascinating for such biographical details as Naipaul's London life, his ignoring British writers as inferior or bores, his mockery of and social climbing among the titled, his poor finances, and his championing of Theroux until Theroux was in a position to help him, after which Naipaul seemed resentful. The friendship is broken after Naipaul's second marriage for reasons that are not clear, but probably as the result of Naipaul's second wife and of Naipaul's feeling upstaged by Theroux. Ignored and insulted, Theroux discovers he has a book about this thirty-year relationship, a book that at times appears to be a vengeful caricature, at times imitates Naipaul's own early satires, at times reads like a still-impressed younger writer thanking an elder for teaching him how to write, at times like a competition. Part scandal, part an attempt to shout that the emperor has no clothes, a history of an infatuation, an Oedipal attempt to kill the father, Sir Vidia's Shadow contains some of the best descriptions of Naipaul's writings I have read. Theroux still seems conflicted; his book is uneven but marvelous reading.

A. N. Wilson (review date 13 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Wilson, A. N. “Going Native.” London Review of Books (13 May 1999): 9.

[In the following review, Wilson describes Sir Vidia's Shadow, as an engrossing, if unflattering, portrait of literary jealousy and resentment.]

I have been trying to explain to myself how such a book as this [Sir Vidia's Shadow] held my uninterrupted attention from first to last. I read it almost at a sitting. This was certainly not because of any previous obsession with either V. S. Naipaul or Paul Theroux. True, I regard Naipaul as one of the most enthralling writers of our time, even though the subjects he has covered—India, Africa, the putrefaction of the post-colonial world—are not ones which engage my interest or my imagination. It is him writing about them, rather than these places themselves, which fascinates me. For this reason, I regard as almost his most triumphant book the one which his true disciple, Paul Theroux, thinks marks the great falling-off: The Enigma of Arrival. This is a book about Naipaul having stopped writing. He is living in Wiltshire within a stone's throw of a large house in which a scarcely-disguised Stephen Tennant is, like England, gathering dust and going to seed. Nothing happens in the book, yet the writing is hypnotic.

Naipaul has always had a mage-like quality, weaving a mystique both about himself and about the craft of writing. Theroux by contrast is a hodman, a stylish and competent craftsman; one who lived in Naipaul's mild and magnificent eye but failed ever to possess himself of the inimitable fire. So, for those of us uninterested in India, Africa, railways—in short, the world—Theroux was always an author we felt we could skip. Also, he has that galumphing air which Henry James parodied so mercilessly in The Aspern Papers, of the American abroad who is trying to convince himself that he is going native, but who is actually a predator. The narrator of The Aspern Papers does not realise that any reasonable reader of the tale is, at a certain point, turned against him. We side fervently with the old lady, holding out against this ‘publishing scoundrel.’ Likewise, in the course of Sir Vidia's Shadow, which is meant to make us see Naipaul as a monster, we find ourselves asking what kind of a monster wrote it.

The book starts in Uganda, with a chapter trying to be fiction. A man called Julian, an American teaching at the university of Kampala, is beginning to make friends with a distinguished Indian writer who is visiting the campus, one U. V. Pradesh. But after a few pages, Theroux himself bursts in, with the admission, ‘Wait, wait, wait. You know I'm lying, don't you? This is not a novel, it is a memory.’ This is a distinction which begs many questions, not all of them answered by the narrative which follows, in which Julian has become Paul and U. V. Pradesh Vidia.

There is a paragraph near the beginning, when the book is still pretending to be fiction, in which Julian/Theroux is making love to his girlfriend, an African called Yomo:

Yomo was even more sensual than she looked. When she and Julian made love, which was often, and always by the light of candles, she howled eagerly in the ecstasy of sex like an addict injected, and her eyes rolled up in her skull and she stared, still howling, with big white eyes like a blind zombie that sees everything. Her howls and her thrashing body made the candle flames do a smoky dance. Afterwards, limp and sleepy, stupefied by sex, she draped over Julian like a snake and pleaded for a child.

I quote this, not to mock, but because it is a paragraph which clearly gave its author pause. He quotes it again, verbatim, just before the end of the book, as an example of how he, as a writer, has broken free from Naipaul's austere strictures concerning what writers can and can't do. ‘Let Vidia be brambly,’ says Theroux, quoting with scorn the brilliant epithet Naipaul had used for the kind of prose he himself liked and aspired to write. ‘Let Vidia be brambly. He stopped trying to please the reader.’

This is an arguable point of view. But how is Theroux pleasing the reader by writing the paragraph I have just quoted? And which reader is he pleasing? The first time it appears, it is followed by a piece of dialogue:

‘Jules, give me a baby!’

‘Why do you want one?’

‘Because you are clever.’

‘Who says?’

‘Everyone says.’

This, like a passage later on, in which Theroux makes it clear that even prostitutes make love to him for motives of sheer pleasure, produces smiles which the author cannot have intended. Kingsley Amis used to quote a novel by his friend John Braine (it sounded too good to be true and I never found it in Braine's oeuvre) in which a woman says to the hero as they lie together, naked in the afternoon: ‘It isn't bloody fair’ (or words to this effect): ‘not only are you a best-selling novelist, but you have the body of a man half your age.’ All the allusions to Theroux's own amorous exploits in this book reminded me of this archetypal passage.

In Africa, at any rate with hindsight, Theroux is both wistful at the accuracy of Naipaul's doom-laden prophecies about that continent, and shocked by his use of terms like ‘Bongo,’ his insistence that Africa will revert to the ‘bush’ or that the bush always means violence. The implied contrast is that Theroux himself is a more observant fellow who understands. Yet the portrait he paints of his erstwhile friend is of a troubled, intelligent exile, trying to tell the truth, and the portrait he paints of his own younger self is of someone who, like the wartime GIs, was oversexed and over here.

You get the same impression in London. Whereas Naipaul, an Oxford graduate with plenty of friends in the bohemian world, is a man who feels detached from the English social scene, Theroux depicts himself as a young American conqueror, quickly—through introductions secured by Naipaul—on hobnobbing terms with the sort of people who give (or gave) dinner parties. He seems touchingly, but crudely, pleased, to have clocked up Hugh Thomas, Hugh and Antonia Fraser, as well as some Soho poets, in his first week. And of course, he has managed to bed one of our girls before Christmas.

He is never more whining than in his suggestion—which rises to a crescendo-wail in the final pages—that Naipaul has sold out to some unseen establishment of snobbery and back-slapping. Yet he has the gawping snob's absorption with it all. His lust for Antonia Fraser is more powerful than that for poor Yomo had been in Kampala. And he does not quite see why his English wife (the marriage break-up is part of the narrative) should be so coldly dismissive of his sycophantic relationship with the Naipauls and their set. As always with such know-alls, there are many mistakes. We are told that the word Avon means a river in Old English (sic). Mrs Heinz DBE appears as ‘Dame Drue Heinz, patroness of the arts and part of the Heinz food fortune.’ As in many passages of the book where Theroux is off-beam, he here loses the syntax as well as the sense. Drue Heinz might be a part-owner or heir to a food fortune, but to suggest that she is herself part of it conjures up a cannibalistic picture of the sort Naipaul himself evokes.

In general, Theroux is guided by an unwavering hatred, and when he keeps his eye on the subject, he can be very funny. On the Salisbury to Waterloo train, the two writers discuss common acquaintances in London. Theroux is aware of the ears and eyes of other passengers listening and watching as Naipaul quizzes the younger man about who he is seeing. The mage disapproves of them all.

‘They are sucking your energy.’

At the word ‘sucking,’ the schoolmaster from Sherborne in the corner seat glanced up from his book, then quickly covered his face with it.

‘They will destroy you,’ Vidia said. ‘They are playing with art. I'll tell you a story. The first man you mentioned’—out of delicacy, Vidia did not repeat his name—‘he has no gift, yet he wrote a novel. “I am a novelist.” He wrote his bogus novel. Just playing with art. He wrote another—farmers, provincials. He begins to move in grand circles, still playing with art. His provincial wife is very unhappy. She thinks he is a genius. She doesn't know he is playing with art. He is caught with another woman. It is his right. He is an artist, he can do such things. But his wife is in despair. She kills herself. Why?’

Now the schoolmaster was frankly gaping and so was I.

‘Because he played with art.’

There is something richly absurd about Naipaul here. Indeed, there are many pages of the book where he emerges as a magnificently comic character. Yet he is never simply that. He retains his dignity even when he is being pompous. A late chapter consists, in effect, of the transcript of a dialogue between Theroux and Naipaul at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. Carried away by his own rhetoric and by the need to show off to the audience, Naipaul plays many of his Golden Oldies. Theroux seems to think that Naipaul is deranged—as, for example, when he says that the growth of university courses in ‘Literature’ is responsible for the growth in illiteracy. (I cheered him.)

Pat, Naipaul's first wife of forty years, is described throughout in nauseating terms. In the early stages Theroux lusts after her. Later, he pities her. In retrospect, he patronises her. When Vidia marries again, Theroux feels his nose put out of joint. The new wife, perhaps sensing that there is something from which Vidia needs protecting, brings the friendship to an end—by fax. Theroux has some fun with her failures of spelling and syntax, and having denounced Naipaul's racism, and the British culture of ‘Paki-bashing,’ he goes on to make her home town—Bahawalpur—into Bowelpur, ‘the quintessential shitty little town.’

What was the Naipauls' great offence? They had sold a few of Theroux's inscribed first editions, and he had spotted them in a booksellers' catalogue. That, it would seem, is the real sin for which the former hero cannot be forgiven, and the real reason why we are supposed to think that Naipaul has become ‘crazy.’

Perhaps Naipaul and Theroux are both crazy. Yet, if Naipaul's seriousness about the art of writing continues to be impressive—even when we read it filtered through Theroux's bilious sensibility—the same is not true of the disciple. There is a scene—comic sans le savoir—in which Naipaul suggests that he and the then youngish Theroux meet for lunch at the Connaught. Mawkishly, Theroux tells the reader how much he loves his young sons, how he leaves them that morning with a promise to buy them a Ladybird book, which he is unable to afford because the lunch at the Connaught cost the better part of twenty quid and Naipaul lets him—still a poverty-stricken novelist and reviewer—pick up the tab. It is one of those many moments in the book when you cheer Naipaul to the rafters. As he lovingly selects a Puligny-Montrachet to wash down his Quenelles d'Aiglefin Monte-Carlo, he could be Evelyn Waugh giving the full treatment to some American hanger-on. What was a young married man doing anywhere near the Connaught? Naipaul's conversation on this occasion is admirable, too. Rather than denouncing Robert Lowell's poetry as bogus (‘His poems are very good,’ is Theroux's interesting contribution) he has the much more brilliant inspiration that the madness was bogus. (‘Total con, total con.’ I said: ‘He goes to mental hospitals, gibbering.’ ‘He's playing,’ Vidia said.)

The self-importance of writers is a rich field for comedy. Naipaul's assessment of his own books as he writes them (‘Major, Major’) may or may not be shared by posterity, but as in the mid to late 18th century (pre-Lyrical Ballads) we live in a literary age when the Lives of the Poets are more interesting than the poetry. Theroux might not be a ‘writer’ in the sense that Naipaul is, but he is an inspired gossip. Of all the lice on the locks of literature at present crawling about, he is one of the lustiest. He has produced an unforgettably disagreeable example of envy and bile: a portrait of Mozart by Salieri.

Caroline Sylge (review date 6 March 2000)

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SOURCE: Sylge, Caroline. “The Wanderer.” New Statesman 129, no. 4476 (6 March 2000): 54–55.

[In the following review, Sylge offers a positive assessment of Fresh Air Fiend.]

Dipping in and out of Fresh Air Fiend, I am struck by what a damn good life Paul Theroux has had: a life on the road achieved through his own will and energy—not from privilege, but from a desire for adventure. Raised in a large, noisy, talkative family in Massachusetts, Theroux went away often in search of personal space. One day, he went and simply never returned. Such an urge for exile helped mould him into a writer and traveller, and his reflections on his early career provide the best reason to read this new anthology.

Theroux travelled for more than a decade in Africa, Asia and Europe before he wrote his first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar. An advocate of disconnection and the state of “being away” as the path to self-discovery, he only wrote the book because he thought his career in fiction was over. On that long trip, he was permanently homesick and unconvinced about what he was doing. So he survived by taking copious notes, at least to give himself the illusion of work.

Eleven travel books later, Fresh Air Fiend is further evidence that that first trip paid off. The anthology contains his shorter travel writings on trips through America, Africa, the Pacific and China, including the full text of Sailing through China, the often bleak account of his 1980 trip up the Yangtze river with a group of American millionaires. There are good pieces on his own and other people's novels and travel books, on his obsession with small boats, on travel illnesses, bizarre customs and fellow exiles (including a meditation on his exasperating friend Bruce Chatwin). There is even a curious piece, originally written for Vogue, on heterosexual desire, about which he perhaps knows too much.

This being Theroux, though, the first person singular dominates; but his egoism is always balanced by an impressive knowledge of the politics and geography of the places he visits, and an acute attention to detail. He is also frank and funny. British readers will be amused to know that their country taught him that hardship, far from being “the long vividly difficult road over the Tibetan plateau,” is actually the “18 years I spent on the South Circular Road, which is almost indescribably depressing.” Describing a trip to England in 1993, Theroux comments on the “London traits” of “lowered voices, lateness, pessimism, pallor, a look of fatigue, rumpled clothes, bad haircuts, the stillness of Tube passengers.” Never mind the rat urine poisoning the River Avon, the grimness of a drizzly Catford morning or the foibles of the BBC.

Theroux may be one of our most prolific travel writers, but he is also one of our best. The reason for this, I think, is his ability to convey the optimism of travel while refusing to tell lies about what he encounters. You feel hopeful when you read him, and you feel that you're being told the truth, and that's a good enough reason to stay with him.

John Cussen (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Cussen, John. “Paul Theroux Approaches Sixty.” Journal of Modern Literature 23, nos. 3–4 (summer 2000): 589–96.

[In the following review of Fresh Air Fiend, Cussen examines Theroux's attitudes toward aging, his commentaries on other noted travel writers, and his problematic postcolonial views.]

Towards the end of “Ghost Stories: A Letter from Hong Kong on the Eve of the Hand-over,” the last of three China pieces in Paul Theroux' second essay collection, Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings 1985–2000, the author does something unusual. He tires. When he does so, he is in the Jeremy Irons-Sinead O'Connor suite of Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel, attending a farewell party for Ruben Blades. After the passing around of sushi, smoked salmon, champagne, and coffee—the writer cannot have any; he has the gout—Theroux excuses himself. He has an interview to do in the morning. He goes home early.

In the Paul Theroux canon, moments of fatigue are worth remarking. He is, after all, the writer famous for having crossed and re-crossed planet earth's maximum east-west railroad breadth (London to Tokyo to London), the writer who has gone by train from Boston to Patagonia, the man who walked around England, paddled the Pacific, and circled the Mediterranean. Significantly, in his accounts of these journeys—The Great Railway Bazaar,The Old Patagonian Express,The Kingdom by the Sea,The Happy Isles of Oceania,The Pillars of Hercules, respectively—he rarely confesses to turning in early, or, on those occasions when he does, he is driven to do so by his own sulks or by the ignorant conversation of those around him, not by lack of energy. Hence, the alarm caused by his being the first of Irons' guests to say goodnight. The world asks, has Paul Theroux lost some of his go?

Happily, the answer seems to be no. The first good news that comes out of Fresh Air Fiend is this: that into late middle age, the writer remains indefatigable. Comprised of essays published between his forty-forth and fifty-ninth years, the book brings together short, journalistic work written while approximately fourteen full-length books were also in the making. That is a great deal of writing. The essays in Fresh Air Fiend, moreover, describe several impressive outlays of physical energy—a hike through seven African countries, Cape Cod in a kayak, Maine on skis, Hawaii and Micronesia also by kayak. In its pages, the author swims with sharks, camps with bats, bravely dips his hat in Africa's Zambezi River, and drinks. Significantly, in the course of his exertions, the early departure at the Peninsula Hotel is the sole instance of his backing off from a write-able experience, or a challenge. To the contrary, he claims repeatedly, “Dire warnings [against the doing of something dangerous] make me feel as if I am doing the right thing.” This, of course, is an adolescent way of thinking. So too is his definition of a fun time, indirectly given at the end of a Pacific kayaking excursion. He judges the trip a “wonderful time” because, during it, he has “camped on empty islands and went up rivers and saw snakes in trees and had his tent butted by monitor lizards, and in seaside villages everyone complimented him on his tattoos, and he had several marriage proposals.” At the end of this “wonderful time,” he is so deliciously “content, naked, alone and happy” on an uninhabited island that he shouts out to himself, “I am a monkey.” This moment—and the book in general—would seem to rout all suspicion that Theroux has grown old, or up. To the degree that his six decades have not made him sedentary, they also have not taught him verbal discretion. Bold, memorable, and politically irresponsible sentences continue to occur to him, and he continues to report them. In Fresh Air Fiend, the writer, who once wrote off New Zealand as “seventy million sheep farting in the glorious meadows,” now says of the African townships of his Peace Corp era that “they were superficially English, like English culture made out of mud.”

Of course, all of this physical vigor and verbal irrepressibility can have only one meaning: that in this book, Theroux' subtext is his age.

While Theroux himself would hint at other psychological worries as the motive forces pushing his work—namely, depression, alcoholism, loneliness; proclivities toward suicide, trespass, wickedness (see the title essay), and, on the positive side, environmental alarm (see, for instance, “Down the Yangtze”)—it seems to me that several of the book's writing marvels are attributable to his age. Moreover, none of the author's confessed debilities is any more a sure killer than simply growing old, nor is any the loose tooth in his mouth that his age is. My general impression after reading these essays is that for the past fifteen years, Theroux has been writing with a loose tooth in his mouth. The tooth is his age, and whether his tongue goes to it or stays away from it, it only confirms his sense of the tooth's looseness.

His tongue, for instance, goes to the tooth when he opens the book with two essays of recollection—“Being a Stranger” and “Memory and Creation: The View From Fifty.” Although the act of reminiscing is not age-indicative in and of itself, the properties of Theroux' particular memories are. One of the most important stories he tells of himself finds him a twenty-something Peace Corps worker and aspiring writer who realizes that “any slob can kill big game in Africa” and that in his fiction, Hemingway “ignored the Africans,” indeed that the author of The Green Hills of Africa was nothing more than a “rich and complacent ‘bwana mkubu.’” Thus, on the spot, Theroux has a mission in life: to write the truth about foreign places and peoples. This is a good story and probably true, but age-damning, for, after all, the era of Kennedy's Peace Corps and of Hemingway's being important was a long time ago.

Again, Theroux is responding to the tooth when he takes exception to “the proliferation of the creepier manifestations of popular culture”—namely, the singing of American pop tunes by a barefoot Filipino boy while walking a remote island. He also dislikes what he sees on television. According to him, television was easily lured into China's pre-Tiananmen hoodwinking of the West because “television cannot film corruption,” and television “cannot spend five days on a rattling railway train, talking endlessly.” (Theroux mentions, of course, that in his much maligned, mid-1980s China book, Riding the Iron Rooster, he correctly forecast the repressive willfulness of Chinese officialdom.) Again, speaking of innovations in electronic media, he says that they are “a cross between toy making and chemical warfare”; indeed, the whole electronics revolution, which it has been his fate to live through, should be seen not as “progress but as ‘folie de grandeur.’” Obviously, the Theroux persona in this book is too old to have gone to any school whose computers were donated by Microsoft.

Theroux confirms his awareness of the tooth whenever he denies it. The book's most disingenuous denial occurs in “Memory and Creation: The View From Fifty,” the collection's second essay, a fiftieth birthday shrug-off in which he says that he “can't relate to the state of being middle aged and clapped out.” Tellingly, however, he precedes the denial by a full-page quotation from his early novel, Saint Jack—a melodramatic passage descriptive of aging—and by the full-text citation of Philip Larkin's fiftieth-birthday poem, “The View.” For the purpose of saying “none of this applies to me,” the quotations are exceedingly long, their length suggesting that down deep the author is troubled by his clock's ticking.

To describe a friend of a friend's fiftieth birthday party (not his own), Theroux uses the words “climacteric” and “observance.” By publishing this collection, Theroux marks (“observes”) his sixtieth birth year (“climacteric”) with essays based on out-of-doors observations. Theroux, however, seems to want to celebrate his penchant for wickedness. That this is his title's point is fairly clear. Had he wanted to say anything else about himself, he might have chosen the words “fanatic,” or “freak,” or “aficionado,” and still have struck the alliteration. In Theroux' long writing history, the gloating confession of sinfulness is an old routine. For years, he has presented himself fictionally as an anti-hero (see, for instance, Alfred Munday of The Black House [1974]); non-fictionally as an anti-social degenerate (see the narrator of The Old Patagonian Express [1978]); and autobiographically as the shameless escapee of social entanglements to which he clearly owed much, namely, his first marriage (see My Secret History [1989] and My Other Life [1996]); and his friendship with V. S. Naipaul (see Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents [1998]). The Fiend title and the book's rear-jacket photo (the author in a kayak) would seem to want to continue celebrating these suspect freedoms most lately taken, that is, those freedoms achieved by dissolving a marriage and a friendship.

Unfortunately, Theroux' title is inaccurate. The Fiend author, it seems to me, is not so wicked as he supposes, and, in one telling instance, perhaps more old than he is sinful. His baldest attempt at an act of evil occurs in “Unspeakable Rituals and Outlandish Beliefs,” a late volume chapter descriptive of several obscene curios of foreign sexual practice (for instance, Ecuadoran women masturbating donkeys). However, maybe this chapter is not so much depraved as it is weird. Other attempts to appear evil occur in “Down the Yangtze,” specifically, whenever the author shares a laugh with Mrs. Ami Ver Bryck. She is the most memorable of the millionaire tourists with whom he travels in China—memorable because she never gets off the ship to look at anything and hates walking and pays so she does not have to walk “and do all that crappy-ola.” At night, she and Theroux drink whiskey sours and play gin rummy. She makes him laugh by making such comments as “I was rotten spoiled. … My daughter was rotten spoiled. And I'm going to make goddam sure that my granddaughter is rotten spoiled.” On another river night, she says, “Of course I'm happier than you are, Paul. I've got more money.” Again, as with the tasteless curios, Theroux may think it depraved to drink and to laugh at such apparently beyond-good-and-evil humor; however, the truth is that he and Mrs. Ver Bryck are not so much two people beyond morality as they are an elderly pair beyond sin's headier pleasures, bravely laughing at themselves.

The first reason, then, for investigating the age question in Fresh Air Fiend is that it is clearly an active energy line in the text. The more important reason, however, is that its study yields at least three significant insights into Theroux' work: his Americanness, his method, and an age-connected postcolonial thought.

The first good that comes of considering the age factor is the realization that since about age forty-five he has been a rider more of kayaks than of trains. This switch in signature vehicle makes prominent the American character of his approach to travel. Vested in a skintight wet suit and shimmied into five thousand dollars worth of collapsible German Kleppar or Canadian Feathercraft (he owns one of each), Theroux is another rich, old American kook solacing himself for life's anti-climax with exercise and expensive outdoor hobbies, but he is also a naturalist/philosopher like Thoreau, a potential-suicide like Crane and London, and an infiltrator of other cultures like Natty Bumppo.

Also, to consider Theroux' age is to ponder developments in his style of travel and writing. Of the three possible age-related papers, this would seem to me the most difficult to put down on paper. Although the writer will have good news to report—namely, that Theroux gets better, more remarkable, as he gets older (there are at least four extraordinary pieces here, the two China reports and the two river journeys)—the writer on Theroux will also be challenged to employ such words as “clairvoyant,” “miracle,” and “preternatural.” His paper's main ideas will have to be bizarre—namely, that a paranormal synchronization seems to exist between Theroux' psychic state and the external world he describes; and that in his later travel writing, Theroux seems to turn off effort in order to rely, instead, on his clairvoyance. The result is prose whose sentences can at times seem like noodles and whose details can seem trivial, but whose last-page, final formal effect is of an uncanny rightness (see the shop girl at the end of “Christmas Island: Bombs and Birds,” who points to her book and asks Theroux what the word “meringe” means). On the less strange side, the writer of the technique essay can also report conventional developments in Theroux' method. He has become a darn good naturalist, and, in “Letter from Hong Kong,” he conducts formal interviews for the first time. Lastly, the essay can report that Theroux' years on the road have honed in him a spontaneous sense of the perfect question (in “Down the Zambezi,” see, “Do your people eat rats?”)

Third, Theroux' age has a postcolonial angle. For to focus on his approach to sixty is to recognize that he has been in the business of travel writing for twenty five years (and in the more general trade of writing about foreign locales since 1963). That quarter-century has been a complicated time for travel writers, one in which their art has been vexed by postcolonial moralities which were only beginning to exist when writers of Theroux' generation started writing. To my knowledge, he has not anywhere directly expressed his opinion of postcolonialism's reach into his genre. In Fresh Air Fiend, however, this non-response is cagily righted in that section of the book in which he collects “eulogies” written to commemorate the passing of travel writing colleagues who have been declared excessively Anglo- and ego-centric by postcolonial readers.

This book contains five such memorial statements, honoring the memories of English travelers Bruce Chatwin (his contemporary), Graham Greene and V. S. Pritchett (his elders); the Ugandan editor, Rajat Neogy; and the American expatriate in Ecuador, Moritz Thomsen. Another clear sign of Theroux' age is that he is asked to write so many “eulogies.” It is also important to note that the pieces are not “eulogies” in the word's strictest sense. They are book reviews, book introductions, a New York Times obituary, and an essay written for a magazine's revival. However, given that all of the honorees have passed on by the time Theroux assembles the pieces to make the Fresh Air Fiend segment called “Escapees and Exiles,” no one should object to the word.

The tributes have in common that in them Theroux focuses on those peculiarities of the deceased's genius or history which are also his own. This is especially true for the most famous of the eulogized—Pritchett, Chatwin, and Greene. In Pritchett's obsequies, he notes that Britain's quintessential man of letters came from a lower-middle-class background on the shabby-genteel fringes of London, had little formal education, went abroad in order to make something of himself, and worked hard. Save for a modicum of university learning (B.A., University of Massachusetts), this is true for Theroux—whose town of origin was Medford, who went to Africa, worked hard, read ferociously and during the London era of his life wrote weekly book reviews for weekend pocket money (see My Other Life). In his tribute to Chatwin, Theroux chooses to recall the In Patagonia writer's most ambiguous talent, lying—an odd choice of highlight until one considers that both Theroux and Chatwin have been accused of inventing the greater part of their Patagonia-in-the-title books. Theroux also makes much of the fact that Chatwin was something of a pedant. He makes this insistence, one would suspect, because he himself has often been accused of knowing less than he ought to about the places which he visits.

Theroux finds several precedents for his own life and activity in Greene's biography. Like Theroux, Greene understood himself as the product of a personal mythology in which time spent in Africa was the critical experience. In Theroux' work, this personal myth is everywhere present; in Greene's, it is the subject of his first travel book, Journey Without Maps (1936), an account of his having come to accept the grim spin of his writer's gift while hiking sahib-like through an inhospitable Liberia. It is a fact, moreover, that Greene's career started slowly but then experienced a momentary acceleration with the publication of Stamboul Train. Likewise Theroux; his The Great Railway Bazaar caused a needed surge in his career. On the personal level, Greene, like Theroux, was a conspicuous absentee from society, a hater of television, a surly interviewee, and an unforthcoming guest at media and academic events. Finally, Theroux and Greene would seem to be a match in their psychological debilities. In “Greeneland,” Theroux talks at length about the dark and comic sides of Greene's character, “his bipolar personality” (Theroux' diagnosis), his openly seeking psychoanalysis, and the monstrous banality of his dreams. This extensive coverage of Greene's psychological darkside is one of several hints in Fresh Air Fiend that Theroux himself suffers from bouts of depression.

Transparently, then, one of Theroux' intentions in writing these pieces is to define himself. The essays make the same point as do at least half of the allusions in a typical Theroux writing sample, “Look! I'm not sui generis. I'm one of these guys.” But the eulogies have another intention, also: to admonish the brilliant, junior literary generation who in the last quarter-century have made life hard for travel writers. To hear this note of rebuke, however, one needs to know that at the end of the deceaseds' lives, when their laureateships (Greene's and Pritchett's) and enfant terribleship (Chatwin's) should have been their sweet reward for work well done, the three were sometimes called to task for transgressions of intellectual principle that did not exist when they were starting out as writers. Postcolonial critics, for instance, have generally denounced the Conradian premise of Greene's Journey Without Maps—that a young man should go to tropical Africa in order to experience at first-hand the horrors that humanity and nature are capable of concocting—as an offense to Africa and to Africans. The same intellectual group has chastised Chatwin for frivolousness. Instead of taking seriously the history and cultures of the places he visited, Chatwin focused on local arcana and spouted preposterous anthropological theories in order to mask his own intellectual skepticism. For Chatwin's postcolonial readers, it was a problem that so many of his journeys were presented as searches for fantastical creatures, such as, a wolf boy in India, a feng shui geomancer in Hong Kong, or a Tibetan yeti. His offense here was to slight cultures that looked odd to the European eye. As for Pritchett, the old man of Grub Street: his sin was not specifically against postcolonialism. Instead, he fell afoul of the growing cadre of university-trained academics. In an era when literary criticism was becoming increasingly the domain of theorists and jargonists, he continued writing weekly book reviews just as Johnson and Goldsmith had written them, that is, at so many pence per line, impressionistically, epigrammatically, and with a good deal of ink on his cuffs.

And what do Theroux' eulogies want to say to the detractors of these important but problematic travelers? First, it is obvious that they express an inclination to side with the men in the coffins. Almost point by point, Theroux' eulogies take as items of merit those pieces of the writers' legacies that modern criticism would seek to question—Greene's African mythology, for instance. Then, it is feasible, if one reads the essays imaginatively, to hear Theroux going beyond defense to the level of rebuke. In his memorial testimonies, he chastises the junior members of the literary establishment for belittling that which they have failed to understand as a result of their youth and inexperience. Specifically, he suggests that the academics cannot understand Sir Victor's achievement because they “hadn't skipped almost all formal education,” nor learned the leather business, nor sold glue and shellac in Paris, nor developed an irresistible interest in “the sight and skill of traditional expertness,” as had Pritchett. Next, because few of the genre-purists have written travel books, they cannot understand the allowability, indeed the necessity, of Chatwin's farcical fabrications. For, if they had ever attempted the writing of a travelogue—one that anyone would ever care to publish or read—they would have learned quickly that the travel writer's tour de force is not so much in the making of the journey itself as it is in the manufacturing of seven to eight hundred manuscript pages once returned home. Some of this page production will come from the good writer's lively imagination and some from his knowledge of arcane facts. Theroux chides those who seek to debunk Greene's mythic African experience, for they cannot have traveled in Africa in the B.A.C. era (Before Air Conditioning), and, as a result, they cannot possibly know how beautifully warping were African mosquitoes and Liberian clap before the British Empire's absolute withdrawal. In Africa, Theroux himself “saw his first hyena, smoked his first hashish, witnessed his first murder, caught his first dose of gonorrhea.” All due respect to the disciples of Edward Said, Theroux continues to believe in growing up in places more dangerous than home. Those too young to have experienced the raunchy good times that he and Greene enjoyed ought not get down on those who did.

When I suggest that these essays need to be read imaginatively, it is to indicate that I imagine a good deal here. On their surfaces the eulogies are not at all the intemperate vituperations that I have characterized them to be. It is likely that most readers of the “Escapees and Exiles” section will not discover the generational conflict or the academics versus writers' antagonisms that I have supposed. My imagining that Theroux has collected these papers into his book as if for a eulogy suggests an analogy to Caesar's burial in Shakespeare's play. In other words, as Theroux writes and later collects these essays, he, like Marc Antony, pretends not to know of the intellectual polemics that surround his deceased friends' reputations, pretends not to know of the knives in the corpses, nor of the bloodied hands in the congregation. That the deceaseds' best virtues are a grievance to those surrounding the coffins—Theroux feigns not knowing this. Thus, I imaginatively read Fresh Air Fiend's seventh segment.

On the other hand, there is at least one moment in these pages of when the eulogizer's true feelings toward the assembled mourners are transparently vented, and little imagination is required to hear it. The passage occurs in the Pritchett essay when Theroux, hearing of his admired mentor's death, goes back to read Pritchett's out-of-print 1951 novel, Mr. Beluncle. From this obscure book, he quotes those sentences in which the title character lectures his son on Divine Love:

Love was getting up when you were called, not making a mess in the bathroom, coming when you are sent for, being prompt, punctual, tidy; not shutting yourself up unsociably with books … getting to know nice people, seeking first the Kingdom of Heaven … not kicking the furniture. …

From Pritchett's original perspective, the speech would seem to be a satire of the stifling brand of Christian Science pressed on him as a boy. In the context of Theroux' eulogies, however, the lecture acquires another meaning. He quotes the passage because he wants to tell the junior literary crowd to do as he and Pritchett did when they were young, namely: sit down, shut up and stop kicking the furniture.

The likening of Theroux to Marc Antony also serves to illustrate an unbecoming feature of Theroux' attitude toward the contemporary literary establishment. When one recalls that several of the assassins shamed by Antony were indeed “honorable men,” one is reminded that many of the latter day lit-crit schools with high tech and p.c. affiliations have undeniably contributed worthwhile insights to the prevailing critical mindset and that their criticism of Theroux' friends and, by extension, of Theroux himself, may have some merit. The eulogist might prefer that writers think of Africa as the white man's growing up place, and he might wish that literary evaluation be done unscientifically, by writers themselves, and he might want to start all his travel essays as light-heartedly as he begins “Palawan: Up and Down the Creek”—“I liked the look of Palawan on a map: the sausagey shape of it”; but at the very least, the first two of these preferences are intellectually flawed, and the literary establishment has every right to question them. Furthermore, it should be noted that the postcolonial censors have only begun to go after Theroux' sins. To date, his discovered faults are as nothing compared to those yet to be exposed. For instance, in her book, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992), Mary Louise Pratt categorizes the world's most famous train rider as another presumptuous Western traveler, supposing himself on a prominence, above all, and understanding of all he surveys. The criticism is absolutely justified, but old news and not especially shocking. Pratt gets closer to Theroux' more flagrant sins, however, when she finds fault with his Patagonian Express depiction of Guatemala City. “For Theroux,” she says, “Guatemala City is on its back, in a position of submission or defeat before him, and with a threatened look.” The image, of course, is of a woman about to be taken sexually. From this metaphoric criticism, it is, one suspects, but a short throw to the literal indictments that seem likely to come, namely, that chaps like Theroux were not necessarily Natty Bumppoing Africa when they capitalized on the economic and power advantages of an American passport in order to fuck African women to their heart's delight (see My Other Life). Indeed, when the day comes in which postcolonial criticism starts counting darker-skinned and narrower-eyed women fucked by American and European travelers, people such as Theroux might stop being considered pioneers of intercultural exchange and start being considered carpetbagging predators. No where in Fresh Air Fiend—certainly neither in the essay that recalls his Peace Corps experience (“At the Sharp End: Being in the Peace Corps”) nor in the eulogies—does Theroux intimate awareness of these obvious complexities in his personal African myth. On the other hand, his most recent novel, Kowloon Tong (1989), clearly show him to be aware of the male pathologies endemic to white, male expatriate existence. But, as I say, the eulogies do not. Maybe the eulogy is not the place for such complicated reflections. Or, maybe in his mature years, Theroux just does not feel like apologizing to his juniors.

Peter I. Rose (review date 27 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Rose, Peter I. “Around the World in 15 Years.” Christian Science Monitor (27 July 2000): 17.

[In the following review, Rose offers a positive assessment of Fresh Air Fiend, but notes the uneven quality of the work's diverse selections.]

Paul Theroux is the author of nine travel books. In The Pillars of Hercules, he journeys from one side of the Straits of Gibraltar to the other, the long way around the Mediterranean; in Kingdom by the Sea, a favorite of mine, he describes a shorter but slower trek, circling Britain, absorbing then conveying in painterly language the sights and sounds of the English seaside, the smell of dank cottages, the taste of fish ‘n’ chips.

Theroux is also known for his novels, many of which also readily fall under the rubric of “Travel Writing.” Some of them are based in Africa, some in Asia. Some, like The Mosquito Coast, are set in Latin America, others in Britain and the United States.

He has also published two collections of his travel writings: Sunrise with Seamonsters and the just released Fresh Air Fiend. Both consist of edited versions of earlier pieces, excerpts from his travel books, and detailed remarks about special places, many revealing Theroux's passions and peeves.

“Being a Stranger,” the introduction to the new book, is about root causes, why and how Theroux became an inveterate wanderer and consummate wordsmith. “I was an outsider before I was a traveler; I was a traveler before I was a writer; I think one led to the other.” The second essay, “Memory and Creation,” offers a thoughtful reflection on the writer's craft.

Few of the other selections—there are more than 50—are so self-consciously analytical. They are more straightforward, more snapshots than full portraits. Although somewhat uneven, perhaps because they were originally written for different audiences, almost every piece in the collection is informative, insightful, and evocative. They have the kind of unvarnished frankness that has long evoked the accusation by some critics that Theroux is an ethnocentric and grumpy expatriate who revels in writing about “Unspeakable Rituals and Outlandish Beliefs” (the title of one of the most interesting if controversial essays in the new book).

Theroux denies the charge. “I have a sunny disposition and am not naturally a grouch,” he says. Whether he is or not, he is a remarkably perceptive ethnographer, an intuitive if not too judicious sociologist, and a fine reporter. He knows those he writes about. Sometimes he seems to know them better than they know themselves. This includes the people he met during his long stints living and working in Malawi (which was Nyasaland when he first went there as an unlikely Peace Corpsman), and Singapore (where, for a time, he worked for the US Information Agency), and in England (where he stayed for almost two decades), and on much shorter trips to other foreign climes. In story after story in Fresh Air Fiend, we get to see what he saw, to feel what he felt, and, if we've been there, to compare notes.

Here Theroux's fans and fellow travelers have a chance to revisit many places he has written about before. I especially enjoyed being with him back in my wife's hometown of Amsterdam, and in London, and in Malawi (where I never lived but from which I was once expelled by the Life President, Dr. Hastings Banda, a nemesis of Theroux's). It is exciting to go vicariously with him to the woods of Maine in wintertime and to the endless summerlands of Maui and Molokai and other islands of the South Pacific; to be his invisible partner paddling solo from Falmouth to Nantucket, crossing fierce currents and over hidden shoals that did in great whaling vessels in the old days and the QE2 more recently; to read again about his perceptions of China, warts and all.

Some of the most interesting sections in the book are Theroux's all too brief but intriguing takes on such writers as Daniel Defoe, Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Conrad, V. S. Pritchett, William Simpson, and Bruce Chatwin, all of whom shared his fascination with other peoples and other places.

For those who like to read books, even anthologies, from cover to cover instead of sampling, Fresh Air Fiend has a somewhat unsettling staccato quality as the author abruptly moves from place to place, from topic to topic and, more annoyingly, eschews any chronological order. But for those who like to pick and choose, this book will only whet the appetite for another lengthy adventure with one of America's most engaging travel writers.

Lucretia Stewart (review date 15 December 2000)

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SOURCE: Stewart, Lucretia. “On the Wrong Side of the Frontier.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5098 (15 December 2000): 32.

[In the following review, Stewart offers an unfavorable assessment of Fresh Air Fiend.]

Fresh Air Fiend, a collection of pieces written between 1985 and 2000, is an odd, disjointed book, some parts of which reveal Paul Theroux to be a more sympathetic and vulnerable character than might previously have been supposed. Generally, he is an immensely competent writer and often better than competent. He is also extremely prolific: he has written twenty-two novels, eleven books of non-fiction (all of these, except for Sir Vidia's Shadow, travel) and one critical monograph on V. S. Naipaul. But his novels often leave a sour taste in the mouth of the reader, his travel writing can seem mean-spirited; his memoir of his friendship with V. S. Naipaul makes one doubt that he has ever known the meaning of the word “friendship.” In his introduction to Fresh Air Fiend, “Being A Stranger,” Theroux writes, “I was an outsider before I was a traveler; I was a traveler before I was a writer,” and, on the last page of the book, in the bibliography, he quotes a line from Graham Greene, “Travel is the saddest of the pleasures.” His literary heroes, it is clear, are Greene and Naipaul, and sections of the book (notably the introduction, the first part, “Time Travel,” and a section on his own travel books) owe much to Greene's A Sort of Life and Ways of Escape, and to Naipaul's Finding the Centre.

Although Theroux is the equal neither of Greene nor of Naipaul, these passages show him at his most thoughtful. His insights—the need for single-mindedness in a writer, that single-mindedness can be bolstered by literally being out of touch (he boasts of spending a decade without a telephone)—are not particularly original, but they are expressed convincingly. He quotes—and clearly identifies with—V. S. Pritchett's definition of a writer as “a man living on the other side of a frontier.” He himself has always made a point of living on the other side of a number of frontiers. His tendency, you could almost say compulsion, to blur fact and fiction has been merely a frontier which he has crossed.

The “Object of Desire,” in which he describes being “almost asthmatic with lust” at the sight of a friend's “barefoot mother standing in her shorts and bra” (he was “nine or ten” at the time and “so small I saw her long legs rising into her loose shorts”), recalls Greene's description (in A Sort of Life) of being taken, at the age of twelve, to a revival of The Admirable Crichton. There the heroine, who was dressed in animal skins on the desert island, “disturbed me for many nights, and she is one of my earliest sexual memories.” It is hard to imagine that Theroux was not familiar with Greene's memory when he recollected his own, and it is equally tempting to suspect that he was motivated at least in part by a desire to go one better than the older writer, possibly by being even younger than him at the moment when “the hammer was cocked” on his libido.

Towards the end of the book, there is a section entitled “Escapees and Exiles,” which includes an essay on Greene and one on Bruce Chatwin. Under the headline “Bruce's Funeral,” Theroux begins with a description of Chatwin boasting about his mountaineering exploits. Theroux writes, at the end of the first, very short paragraph, “And this struck me as very odd, because I knew he had never been much of a mountaineer.” The two men, we learn, were attending a dinner at the Royal Geographical Society where Chatwin was seated between Chris Bonington and Lord Hunt, leader of the first successful expedition to the summit of Everest.

A page later, Theroux makes the startling observation (perhaps to offset his previously astonishingly bitchy tone) that “Chatwin's funeral remains for me the single most significant literary event I knew as a writer in London.” It is hard to know how to interpret this remark: does he mean “event” as in “gathering,” or even “party”? Another comment, “Judging from the congregation, Bruce had known everyone—the aristocracy, the gentry, the editors, the art crowd, the auction people, and the riffraff to which most of us as writers belonged,” suggests that he does. In this portrait Chatwin comes across as boastful, snobbish, wholly self-centred and much given to name-dropping and exaggeration, characteristics for which he is almost as famous as for his boyish good looks, wit, charm and talent. Theroux, though, comes across as envious, competitive and not above speaking ill of the dead, though I suspect that he does not always know that he is doing it. He writes, “Bruce was a fairly bad listener. If you told him something he would quickly say that he knew it already, and he would go on talking.” Then he adds quickly, as if to cancel out the previous remark, “Usually he was such a good talker that you didn't care that he alone bounced the conversational ball.” Clearly, though, Theroux cared a great deal.

Greene, on the whole, gets off rather more lightly, though his admirer cannot resist the odd dig. Greene's letters to his then future wife, Vivien, which have been sold to and “solemnly catalogued” by the University of Texas, contain, Theroux informs us, “many lengthy and gushing passages (showing a tender and romantic and vulnerable side to the novelist most people regard as a cold fish).” Here again Theroux demonstrates his mastery of the rapid scattergun approach to invective, devised, it would appear, specifically for the purpose of cramming as many insults as possible into the shortest possible space. But the main target of “Graham Greene as Otis P. Driftwood” is the novelist's biographer, Norman Sherry, whom Theroux has it in for in the kind of detail that only real envy can produce.

The least enjoyable (though comparatively benign) part of the book is that devoted to short travel pieces, reprinted, one suspects, from glossy magazines and written without much care and attention. This section, from which the book takes its title, is particularly heavy going, partly because unless one is a kayaking enthusiast (and because each piece reads, as one might expect, not unlike the previous one), a kayak is a kayak. The entire travel section is flat: whether Theroux is “paddling to Plymouth,” “trespassing in Florida” or “tasting the Pacific,” it is hard to enthuse over the enterprise. Nor is it much more interesting when he is going down the Zambezi or the Yangtze.

Successful writers are encouraged to publish collections when they have got nothing else to hand. This one does Theroux no favours. As with his memoir of Naipaul, Theroux shows himself in a far worse light than that in which he depicts his subjects. The encounters, unfortunately, are the memorable parts of the book.

Heller McAlpin (review date 19 April 2001)

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SOURCE: McAlpin, Heller. “A Honolulu Hotel for Fringe Sad Sacks.” Christian Science Monitor (19 April 2001): 21.

[In the following review, McAlpin offers a positive assessment of Hotel Honolulu, calling Theroux a “sharp, unblinking storyteller.”]

The ever-prolific Paul Theroux, who demonstrated a playful predilection for fantasizing alternate lives for a character named Paul Theroux in his novels, has this time addressed what might well be his worst nightmare: What if he were totally blocked and washed up?

Theroux's writing has long shown a fascination with people out of their element. In Hotel Honolulu, he imagines a writer who shares many of his biographical particulars but finds himself “humbled and broke again, my brain blocked, feeling superfluous, out of the writing business, and trying to start all over at the age of forty-nine.” His narrator gets a job managing a second-rate, 80-room hotel two blocks from the beach in Waikiki.

Reader beware: The Hawaii Theroux depicts is not the island paradise most tourists know. About the state in which he lives part-time, Theroux writes: “Hawaii was paradise with heavy traffic. … I liked Hawaii because it was a void.”

The conceit of a blocked Theroux circumscribed by semiliterates and prostitutes is delicious in its unlikeliness.

Eager to immerse himself in his new life, Theroux's alter-ego quickly marries Sweetie from housekeeping, the pretty daughter of Puamana, a resident prostitute. One of Theroux's more outrageous constructs is that Sweetie, who is reduced to tears when she tries to penetrate Tolstoy's “Anna Cara Neena,” is actually JFK's illegitimate daughter, sired on a secret visit to Hawaii in 1962 when the president asked to spend a night with “a little coconut princess.” The “island girl” was Puamana, then a fresh convent runaway, too naive to recognize Kennedy. Hearing this, the narrator insists on naming his new daughter Rose, for her supposed great-grandmother.

Nearly a decade passes, during which Theroux's narrator continues to feel like “an alien in an aloha shirt.” He remains blocked while guests come and go. Only his precocious daughter, Rose, and Leon Edel, biographer of Henry James, whom he meets on a club beach, seem to speak his language.

Theroux's sweet portrait of Edel is a counter-weight to last year's bitter memoir, Sir Vidia's Shadow, in which he skewered his former mentor V. S. Naipaul. It is not the only humanizing aspect of Hotel Honolulu. In one of the funnier scenes, Theroux, often accused of superciliousness, has his alter-ego trounced and humiliated at Scrabble by his uneducated staff, who use Hawaiian colloquialisms of which he is ignorant.

Theroux is a sharp, unblinking storyteller with a taste for the scabrous and perverse. His narrator is a Gatsbyesque Nick Carraway figure reporting on the sadsacks at the Hotel Honolulu from the fringe. Although largely episodic and occasionally repetitive, the book's 80 short chapters are unified by two threads: the narrator's path back to his writing and the extravagant, lurching progress toward death of his boss, Buddy Hamstra. Theroux is indulgent toward this “big blaspheming doggy-eyed man in drooping shorts, … most people's nightmare, a reckless millionaire with the values of a delinquent.” Buddy is a man whose idea of a joke is to pretend to grind his second wife's ashes over guests meals as pepper.

Other characters are equally sordid or sad. Not all of their stories resonate like that of the gossip columnist involved in a seamy, ill-fated triangle with her son and his bisexual lover, or the rich lawyer who is happy living alone tending his gardens and bees until he meets a young woman beyond his reach. But with Hotel Honolulu, Theroux has written a morbidly fascinating handbook of alienation and a Baedeker of his fantasies and inner life.

Michael Newton (review date 27 April 2001)

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SOURCE: Newton, Michael. “The Voyeur's Tale.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5117 (27 April 2001): 24.

[In the following review of Hotel Honolulu, Newton finds Theroux's preoccupation with sexual indulgence tiresome, but appreciates his larger interest in the significance of literary culture.]

Nothing is so erotic as a hotel room. So the narrator of Paul Theroux's powerful new novel, Hotel Honolulu, tells us. Theroux locates this sexual allure in rooms permeated with the presence of those who briefly call the place home, and, with equal clarity, he summons up the melancholy of hotels, their aspiring elegance, their improvised and impoverished encounters, their soulless bars, their loneliness.

Theroux's narrator is a writer who has stopped writing. On a whim, he goes to Hawaii and finds a new job as a hotel manager. Here, to complete the scenario of a full-blown, late-mid-life crisis, he marries a much younger local girl (the illegitimate daughter, he supposes, of J. F. Kennedy). He raises their daughter, incompetently learns his job, befriends Buddy Hamstra, the irrepressibly extravagant hotel-owner, and, above all, he bears witness to the lives of others. Like a modern Canterbury Tales,Hotel Honolulu is a compendium of travellers' tales, the unhappy life-histories of the hotel's workers and guests.

In this book, everyone has a hidden secret, but, unfortunately, it is the same secret. The answer to the riddle too often turns out to be sex. The variations in private sexual behaviour become increasingly tedious, so that when we learn, for instance, of the he-man who likes to wear little panties and be sodomized by his mistress, or of the hotel's owner who spanks his mail-order bride and locks her in a cupboard, all we can do is suppress a weary yawn. By the time Theroux confronts us with the titillating details of exactly how Wallis Simpson maintained her hold on the Prince of Wales, we are already becalmed in the terrible monotony of sexual desire. However, we soon learn that, after all, sex isn't the final key to the hidden life. For behind the dreary perversions lies an overwhelming and inert despair. At times, the novel seems to be setting out to confirm Quentin Crisp's acid aphorism: “Sex is the last refuge of the miserable.” The story of Pinky, the mail-order bride, is a modern “Clerk's Tale,” in which she makes her way through a world where women patiently suffer the cruelty of men. An abused child, she becomes in turn a lap-dancer, a victim of a crooked abortionist, a motel truck prostitute, and always the scapegoat for men's sexual desires. That this modern Griselda should end up inheriting the hotel and achieving the desirable goal of becoming American is perhaps fitting. But, as with Chaucer's tale, the end somehow fails to justify the means that took her there.

At times, Hotel Honolulu irritates and depresses with its knowingness and its harsh portrayal of purposeless lives. Yet Theroux's heart and mind are clearly in the right place. In the end, the book even feels innocent, the novel of a sensitive soul talking tough and masquerading behind a cynical detachment that he hardly feels. Even the narrator's egotism feels innocent, an example of boyish self-assertion that permits him to imagine himself as a peer of Henry James. (Leon Edel, a resident of Hawaii, is luckily on hand to confirm this apotheosis.) And behind the book's despair lies one more key to its meaning. Its real subject is story-telling, and the thread that holds the whole thing together is the writer himself. Unlike Chaucer's elvish invisibility that takes in everything and passes unnoticed, we have instead the narrator's insistent, self-regarding presence. Theroux's narrator is a voyeur of the human heart, incorrigibly “mele, as the Hawaiians said. Nosy.” This view of the writer's psychology, with his decision to stop writing, at first seems to be a literary way of attacking literature. Most of the characters never read, and they look on the narrator's past career and indeed literature itself as dull, alien and irrelevant. Again and again, the narrator's bookishness estranges him from his new companions. But this pleases him. At least he is saved from “my old indoor life among bitter writers and overfamiliar readers, the well-meaning bores of literacy.”

Theroux uses Hawaii as a symbol of a place and a culture that have left books behind. Only the tacky columns of the local newspapers mean anything here. There could be problems with this. Theroux might be suggesting that the Pacific island represents the absence of literary culture by being absorbed in the ever-new presence of nature. And more than that, it could be that the island's Americanization entails a pre-emptive eradication of the literary by a culture addicted to money and the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures. The narrator's mid-life crisis is therefore not just a personal loss of direction, but a symbol of a global breakdown in literacy. Theroux's writer has to justify his own vocation to himself, but also, by implication, to everybody. Perhaps such anxieties are superfluous; reading literature has always been a minority activity. None the less, the question that Theroux asks in this novel is a fundamental one. Why should anyone write, and, just as important, why should anyone read?

Above everything, Hotel Honolulu defends the literary, storytelling, that habit of mind that engages with endless and compassionate curiosity concerning the lives of others. Writing justifies a life. At the book's close, Theroux's narrator returns to his vocation as a writer. And when the narrator's daughter, Rose, chooses the path of her novel-reading father against the pragmatic, empty and contented silence of her mother, then we know a happy ending is truly in sight. Just as the writer is reborn, another reader enters the world.

Jonathan Mirsky (review date 28 April 2001)

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SOURCE: Mirsky, Jonathan. “Travelling without Making Progress.” Spectator 286, no. 9012 (28 April 2001): 38–39.

[In the following negative review, Mirsky criticizes the plot, characterization, and dialogue of Hotel Honolulu.]

In 1997 Paul Theroux published Kowloon Tong, a novel many readers in the colony disliked for precisely the reason I liked it very much. A good thriller, it caught the feeling of Hong Kong exactly, including many of the characteristics of those who lived there—Cantonese, Filipinos, British—which made some readers accuse Theroux of stereotyping, more specifically of racism or Anglophobia. I thought he got everyone just right, neither fairly nor meanly, although fairness is not a quality we expect of a novel. There was no message, no discernible attitude, just a light but effective narrative about people in their different but interlocking worlds. Theroux transformed eating chicken feet, consumed in their tens of thousands every day in Hong Kong, into the actions of a torturer. Mr Hung, a murderer,

went on cramming the chicken foot into his mouth, finishing it off with his teeth. He spat a knuckle of gristle onto his plate … His face was so contorted by his chewing that he seemed to have no eyes. He leaned toward a terrified young woman, whom he would kill later that night, leaving no trace, and said, ‘I want to eat your foot.’

I mention this earlier Theroux novel because Hotel Honolulu, I'm sorry to say, is hardly recognisable as by the same author. Its narrator, a failed novelist, finds himself managing a down-at-heel hotel away from the beach. Hotels, of course, are notorious settings for novels. The problem in Hotel Honolulu is finding that basic ingredient of a novel, the story. What we have here are fragments of dialogue and occasional episodes which a much published author like Theroux realises, whether he hears them or makes them up, to be ‘good stories.’ There is a racy little episode in which a handicapped waiter is invited up by a Japanese guest to her room. While her back is turned, the waiter fishes from the bedside table the Gideon Bible, found in every American hotel room from coast to coast and beyond. ‘As she canted forward to receive him, Fishlow chucked the Bible to the floor, placed his foot on it to brace his short leg, and thus braced, he entered her.’ This is unusual and well-observed, so to speak, but it goes nowhere. There are many of these fragments. After a while I'd start a new chapter, rather as if I were reading the New Yorker, and if I didn't like the opening lines I'd skip to the next or perhaps the next but three. This is no way to structure a novel or to read one.

Theroux makes another mistake. His hero keeps Anna Karenina nearby for continuous reading, and occasionally quotes from it. The effect is disastrous, like suddenly hearing Bach in the middle of a television commercial; no matter how badly played, it suddenly reminds you how trivial the context is.

Finally, Theroux, who has a keen ear for dialect and dialogue, has misused his notebook. All writers jot down snatches of conversation. But whereas in Kowloon Tong he used this to good effect to show what his characters were like, especially the colonial Brits, in Hotel Honolulu his perfect pitch is used only for display and usually to no effect in the novel as a whole. One example out of many: two Hawaiians are weeding outside the narrator's window. They are discussing the theft of some drugs.

‘See a waheeny with one bag. He say “That mines!” He cuckaroach the bag, and the waheeny she armin like hell.’

‘They all on djrugs.’

‘Take da cash. Buy batu.’

‘Batu. Ice. Pakalolo.’

Decrypting that is an effort. But why make it? The wacky conversation ends and we are no farther forward either in character or story.

Gerry Feehily (review date 30 April 2001)

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SOURCE: Feehily, Gerry. “Novel of the Week.” New Statesman 130, no. 4535 (30 April 2001): 58.

[In the following review, Feehily provides an overview of the narration and themes in Hotel Honolulu.]

Mention Hawaii and most people think of the famous TV show: those rolling drums, that zoom shot of the handsome Jack Lord, the hula girls, the canoe loads of portly islanders chugging up the bay. In this [Hotel Honolulu], his latest novel, Paul Theroux has created a similarly secure universe, a series of variations on a theme—which, although full of tears and death, has a strange predictability.

Our unnamed narrator is, would you believe, a writer who has rejected the literary life. Soft-landing in Hawaii, he comes under the protection of a millionaire called Buddy Hamstra—“a big, blaspheming, doggy-eyed man in drooping shorts.” Something of a Falstaffian figure, lusting after comely masseuses, cherishing a heart-shaped box in which he keeps his first wife's ashes, Buddy owns Hotel Honolulu and offers the narrator the run of it. Through the shabby lobby pass a succession of chancers, losers, prudes and crooks, and the narrator is moved to take up his pen again, becoming their secret biographer—a scribe, as it were, to a Chaucerian parade. Or rather, in the clipped patois of Hawaii, he “talks story.”

In these stories, we see first the public mask, then the private grief, of the incumbents. Puamana, a part-time prostitute who hangs around the hotel bar (which the narrator has pointedly renamed Paradise Lost), is a former nun, despatched to a convent after an incestuous relationship with her father. A stately widow is revealed as a sharp sexual operator, ensnaring wealthy men with her devastating technique. And then there is the preening Madam Ma, an ageing gossip columnist who began life as a beautiful ingénue, the child of a malformed factory worker.

The single theme running through Hotel Honolulu is announced in the opening lines: “Nothing to me is so erotic as a hotel room.” In a novel that is 80 chapters long, Eros leaves an impressive slew of victims in his wake. Among them is Royce Lionberg who, once considered the happiest of men, falls fatally in love with a waitress. Elsewhere, Madam Ma has an affair with her gay son's lover, which ends in tragedy.

Hawaii might well be a collection of “green mute islands,” but it is born of volcanoes. It is also impossibly trashy, a place whose past is processed for tourist consumption, and whose locals speak “a debased and highly colloquial form of English composed of moody-sounding grunts and utterances and wilful mispronunciations.” In the midst of this, the narrator, his head full of high culture, is inevitably lost. Although he quickly hitches up with Puamana's daughter, Sweetie—his “coconut princess”—he remains “an alien in an aloha shirt, gazing at Hawaii through dark glasses.” Holding on to a prized copy of Anna Karenina and enjoying a rare intellectual friendship with another Hawaii resident, a famous biographer of Henry James, he is permanently ineffectual.

His predicament, however, seems self-imposed—or rather, no more than an intellectually lazy strategy on Theroux's part. It doesn't take much, after all, to deliver a few swift blows to the king of schlock's soft belly. And a few journalistic swipes at both our narrator's and Theroux's former residence, London—“All those bomb sites. Budget conscious buildings. Twice breathed air”—reveal nothing about the initial crisis that jettisoned him out of it.

This, then, is little more than a stock portrait of the artist befuddled by his artisanal role in a world of plastic. Which is frustrating—because one never gets the sense that Theroux is aware of his narrator's complacency. Although deftly told and consummately structured, Hotel Honolulu lacks any real moral urgency. It is time, Paul, to take off those dark glasses.


Theroux, Paul (Vol. 15)


Theroux, Paul (Vol. 28)