Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

From Fong and the Indians (1968) to The Mosquito Coast (1982), Theroux has examined the cultures of Third World countries and the interactions of outsiders, usually Americans, with them. Singapore is a most appropriate setting for a Theroux novel: “In such a small place, an island with no natives, everyone a visitor, the foreigner made himself a resident by emphasizing his foreignness.” Jack Flowers is a chameleon who can fit himself into any environment; he is proud of the Chinese and Malay touches in his brothel, especially since so much of Singapore has fallen prey to fast food and other Western influences. Other Theroux visitors to the Third World fail to adapt and sometimes die in the attempt.

Jack, however, like so many characters in contemporary American fiction, would be something of an outsider wherever he found himself. He is a picaro, a rogue, a con man, but he is not a comic figure, is not alienated. He is believably complicated, a closet puritan with admittedly old-fashioned attitudes about sex despite his offers to supply “anything” for his customers. His innocence, combined with his self-knowledge and lack of self-pity, makes him a remarkable achievement, almost a Dickensian character with an awareness of Sigmund Freud, a Graham Greene character who will never burn out. Much of Theroux’s subsequent fiction and nonfiction has displayed an impatience with human imperfections bordering on misanthropy, but Saint Jack is full of unsentimental compassion for the fallibility of man. Jack sees himself as “a person of small virtue; virtue wasn’t salvation, but knowing that might be.”