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.
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.
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.
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.