The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro, and Other Stories
In the title novella, a sixty-year-old American painter recalls his corrupting experience in Taormina forty years earlier when, at the urging of a homosexual Iraqi doctor, he became entrapped in an affair with a German countess. Envious of wealth and refinement, he aestheticized himself as in a fairy tale, lured on by a wicked sorceress. Now he, too, preys upon embodiments of youth to sustain his artistry. Recurrently here, sixty is a dangerous age: a time for realizing that attaining what one thought one wanted can never be enough, and for embarking on a quest to satisfy insatiable lust.
The connection between sex and creativity appears also in “An African Story,” where the narrator reads a collection of fiction about interracial love by a sixty-year-old Afrikaans author who enters into an affair with an African woman; yet this seems so much like living out his own stories that he loses all inspiration. In “Disheveled Nymphs,” a lonely lawyer (again, aged sixty) lusts after a mother and her daughter, finding in their contorted postures as they clean his house images of positions for lovemaking. Humiliated after the daughter rebuffs his advances, he begins an affair with the mother.
The strongest of these efforts, the four-part novella “A Judas Memoir,” is another tale of initiation, this time into prepubescent sexuality and violence, as a young boy becomes enthralled by a glimpse of a girl’s underclothes in church, discovers a friend’s mother committing adultery, and helps avenge a friend molested by a priest.
Although Paul Theroux displays here the same unerring eye for place—from Sicily to working class Boston—for which his novels and travel books are known, the clinical depictions of sexual debauchery and power games result in a sameness that some readers might find off-putting.