Paul Theroux Theroux, Paul (Vol. 159) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jim Mann (review date 8 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Timothy Tung (review date 8–22 August 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”...

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Elizabeth Wright (review date 16 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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George Sim Johnston (review date 2 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andrew Jaffe (review date 11 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Profumo (review date 8 July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gary Krist (review date 17–24 July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Wilhelmus (review date spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anita Brookner (review date 7 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Warner Marien (review date 19 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alexander Frater (review date 21 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ronald Wright (review date 31 July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Douglas Kennedy (review date 8 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Shone (review date 8 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Sam Staggs (essay date 7 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Terry Tempest Williams (review date 20 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edward T. Wheeler (essay date 20 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dean Flower (review date Autumn 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ronald Curran (review date Autumn 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Adam Hopkins (review date 1 December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alexander Urquhart (review date 8 December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Graham Coster (review date 8 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Zachary Leader (review date 5 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1498 words.)

Molly Mortimer (review date October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Martin Rubin (review date 20 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1108 words.)

David Sexton (review date 18 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)

Bharat Tandon (review date 31 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 863 words.)

Jonathan Mirsky (review date 25 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 1366 words.)

Elizabeth Powers (review date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

William H. Pritchard (review date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

David Crane (review date 21 March 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

James Knudsen (review date spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 25 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1290 words.)

James Bowman (review date 26 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

Frederic Raphael (review date 5 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 977 words.)

Brooke Allen (review date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2231 words.)

Bruce King (review date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2114 words.)

Caroline Sylge (review date 6 March 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 520 words.)

John Cussen (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4466 words.)

Peter I. Rose (review date 27 July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 759 words.)

Lucretia Stewart (review date 15 December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)

Heller McAlpin (review date 19 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Michael Newton (review date 27 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Jonathan Mirsky (review date 28 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Gerry Feehily (review date 30 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 522 words.)