Theroux, Paul (Edward) 1941-
THEROUX, Paul (Edward) 1941-
PERSONAL: Surname rhymes with "skiddoo"; born April 10, 1941, in Medford, MA; son of Albert Eugene (a salesman) and Anne (Dittami) Theroux; married Anne Castle (a broadcaster), December 4, 1967 (divorced, 1993); married Sheila Donnely, November 18, 1995; children (first marriage): Marcel Raymond, Louis Sebastian. Education: Attended University of Maine, 1959-60; University of Massachusetts, B.A., 1963; Syracuse University, further study, 1963. Hobbies and other interests: Rowing.
ADDRESSES: Home—35 Elsynge Rd., London SW18 2HR, England. Office—c/o Author Mail, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England.
CAREER: Soche Hill College, Limbe, Malawi, lecturer in English, 1963-65; Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, lecturer in English, 1965-68; University of Singapore, lecturer in English, 1968-71; professional writer, 1971—. Visiting lecturer, University of Virginia, 1972-73. Has given numerous lectures on literature in the United States and abroad.
MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Royal Geography Society, Royal Society of Literature.
AWARDS, HONORS: Robert Hamlet one-act play award, 1960; Playboy Editorial Award, 1971, 1976; New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice citation, 1975, for The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award for literature, 1977; Whitbread Prize for Best Novel, 1978, for Picture Palace; American Book Award nominations, 1981, for The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas, and 1983, for The Mosquito Coast; James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Best Novel, 1981, for The Mosquito Coast; Thomas Cook Travel Book Prize, 1989. Honorary degrees from Trinity College and Tufts University, both in 1980, and University of Massachusetts—Amherst, 1988.
Waldo, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1967.
Fong and the Indians, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1968.
Girls at Play, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1969.
Murder in Mount Holly, Alan Ross, 1969.
Jungle Lovers, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1971.
Saint Jack (also see below), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1973, reprinted, Penguin Books (New York, NY) 1997.
The Black House, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1974.
The Family Arsenal, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1976.
Picture Palace, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1978, reprinted, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1999.
(With Peter Bogdanovich and Howard Sackler) Saint Jack (screenplay; based on Theroux's novel), New World/Shoals Creek/Playboy/Copa de Oro, 1979.
The Mosquito Coast, with woodcuts by David Frampton, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1982.
Doctor Slaughter (also see below), Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1984.
Half Moon Street: Two Short Novels (contains Doctor Slaughter and Doctor DeMarr), Houghton (Boston, MA), 1984.
O-Zone, Putnam (New York, NY), 1986.
My Secret History, Putnam (New York, NY), 1989.
Doctor DeMarr (also see above), illustrations by Marshall Arisman, Hutchinson (London, England), 1990.
Chicago Loop, Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
Millroy the Magician, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
My Other Life, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1996.
On the Edge of the Great Rift: Three Novels of Africa (contains Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers) Penguin (London, England), 1996.
Kowloon Tong, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1997.
The Collected Short Novels, Penguin Books (London, England), 1999.
Sinning with Annie and Other Stories, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1972.
The Consul's File, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1977.
World's End and Other Stories, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1980.
The London Embassy, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1982.
The Collected Stories, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Hotel Honolulu, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2001.
The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro and Other Stories, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2004.
V. S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Works, Deutsch (London, England), 1972.
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1975.
The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1979, reprinted, 1997.
Sailing through China, illustrated by Patrick Procktor, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1984, published as Down the Yangtze, Penguin Books (London, England), 1995.
The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around Great Britain, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1985.
(With Steve McCurry) The Imperial Way: By Rail from Peshawar to Chittagong, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1985.
Sunrise with Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries 1964-1984, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1985.
(With Bruce Chatwin) Patagonia Revisited, illustrated by Kyffin Williams, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1986.
Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China, Putnam (New York, NY), 1989.
To the Ends of the Earth: The Selected Travels of Paul Theroux, Random House, (New York, NY), 1990.
Travelling the World: The Illustrated Travels of Paul Theroux, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1992.
The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Putnam (New York, NY), 1995.
Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1998, with a new afterword by the author, 2000.
Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings, 1985-2000, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2000.
Nurse Wolf and Doctor Sacks, Short Books (London, England), 2001.
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Houghton (Boston, MA), 2003.
Vineyard Days, Vineyard Nights, photographs by Nancy Ellison, Stewart, Tabori & Chang (New York, NY), 2004.
A Christmas Card (for juveniles) illustrated by John Lawrence, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1978.
London Snow: A Christmas Story (for juveniles) illustrated by John Lawrence, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1979.
The White Man's Burden: A Play in Two Acts, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1987.
ADAPTATIONS: The Mosquito Coast was adapted for film by Paul Schrader, directed by Peter Weir, and starred Harrison Ford, Warner Bros., 1986; Doctor Slaughter was adapted for film by Edward Behr and Bob Swain as Half Moon Street, directed by Swain, starring Sigourney Weaver and Michael Caine, RKO/Fox, 1986; London Embassy was adapted as a British television mini-series by T. R. Bowen and Ian Kennedy Martin, directed by David Giles III, and Ronald Wilson, 1987; Chinese Box is a screenplay adaptation by Jean-Claude Carriere and Larry Gross of a story by Gross, Wayne Wang, and Theroux, directed by Wang, starring Jeremy Irons, WW/Trimark, 1997.
SIDELIGHTS: In a career spanning the last four decades of the twentieth century, author Paul Theroux has established a reputation as one of modern literature's most respected chroniclers of the expatriate experience. His novels find themes in the anomalies of post-imperial life, and are set such exotic locales as Malawi, Singapore, and Honduras, as well as in the economic and social decay besetting Great Britain in the late twentieth century. As Samuel Coale noted in Critique: "Drastic change indeed stalks the world of [Theroux's] fiction, that precisely rendered realm where cultures clash and characters encounter each other as society's pawns in a larger pattern." An American citizen who lives in London most of the year, Theroux has gained equal renown for his nonfiction travel books, some of which feature continent-crossing railway journeys of months' duration. By traveling, suggested New Yorker contributor Susan Lardner, "Theroux has tested a belief in the continuing strangeness of the world, and discovered openings for melodrama and romantic gestures that other writers have given up for lost." Helen Dudar wrote in Chicago Tribune Book World that Theroux has become "our foremost fictional specialist in the outsized outsider, the ravenous wanderer who sees or knows or wants more than most of us allow ourselves to hope for."
Theroux's family background and upbringing in the "prim suburbs of Boston" hardly seem adequate preparation for his adult role as an award-winning novelist, essayist, and world traveler. He was born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1941, to working-class parents who had, he related in New York Times, "no place, no influence, no money nor power." They did, however, have numerous children. In his essay collection Sunrise with Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries 1964-1984, Theroux writes: "It was part of my luck to have been born in a populous family of nine unexampled wits." Included in this roster of six siblings are two elder brothers—Eugene, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and expert in Sino-American trade, and Alexander, a novelist whose critical reception has rivaled Paul's. New York Times contributor James Atlas characterized the three oldest Theroux brothers as "collective tutors in the acquisition of culture" who "shared their various talents among themselves and passed them down to their younger brothers."
As a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, Theroux declared himself to be a pacifist and insisted on receiving an exemption from the then-mandatory R.O.T.C. program. Though "neither a brilliant nor inspired student," according to Atlas, Theroux called further attention to himself in 1962 by being arrested for leading an antiwar demonstration—"when demonstrations were rare and actually bothered people," Theroux noted in Sunrise with Seamonsters. Upon graduation from the University of Massachusetts in 1963, Theroux joined the Peace Corps, an organization he describes as "a sort of Howard Johnson's on the main drag to maturity." He was sent to Limbe, Malawi, in South Central Africa to teach English.
For a time Theroux supplemented his Peace Corps stipend by writing articles for Christian Science Monitor and several African periodicals. In the course of his stay in Malawi, he found himself on friendly terms with a group of political leaders who eventually fell from favor with the unstable Hastings Banda regime. This association, as well as a duplicitous use of some of Theroux's articles by the German equivalent of the C.I.A., led to Theroux's deportation from Malawi in 1965, under the charge of spying. Several years later, Theroux described the incident in an essay that was reprinted in Sunrise with Seamonsters. "My readiness to say yes to favors may suggest a simplicity of mind, a fatal gullibility," he wrote, "but I was bored, and the daily annoyance of living in a dictatorship, which is like suffering an unhappy family in a locked house, had softened my temper to the point where anything different, lunch with a stranger, the request for an article, the challenge of a difficult task, changed that day and revived my mind." Theroux was expelled from the Peace Corps and fined for "six months' unsatisfactory service," but no further government action ensued based on the events in Malawi.
Immediately following his expulsion from the Peace Corps, Theroux returned to Africa, where he became a lecturer in English at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. He remained in Uganda until 1968, when he and his wife, Anne Castle, were attacked during a political demonstration against the policies of white-controlled Rhodesia. The violent end to his stay in Uganda notwithstanding, Theroux found much-needed intellectual stimulation at the university, as well as the time to work on his writing. In 1966 author V. S. Naipaul visited Makerere University and struck up an amiable but exacting working relationship with the young writer. Theroux recalls the period in Sunrise with Seamonsters: "It was like private tuition—as if, at this crucial time in my life, . . . he had come all the way to Africa to remind me of what writing really was and to make me aware of what a difficult path I was setting out on. . . . With me he was a generous, rational teacher." It was Naipaul, Theroux said, who suggested that he write fiction about Africa, with attention to the comic and the tragic aspects of life there. Theroux, in turn, published a critical appraisal of Naipaul's work, titled V. S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Works, in 1972, and more recently penned Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents.
Waldo, Theroux's first novel, was published in 1967, while the author was still living in Uganda. Timothy J. Evans noted in Dictionary of Literary Biography that the work "deals with the theme of a man trying to find or create order in his life" and that the book is the first expression of themes Theroux has continued to use. "Order is not discovered by the characters" in Waldo, Evans remarked, "and it is not imposed by the writer on the novel." Evans related that critical reaction to Waldo falls in extremes of praise and disparagement but that the book's quality falls rather midpoint between the two poles. "The novel does have a point," Evans concluded, "and it has some humorous, satiric passages which make it worth reading, but it is very episodic, with vignettes of uneven quality." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer offered a similar assessment: "Most of the time, Waldo seems to wander along, quite amiably and quite readably, but without much sense of direction."
In 1968 Theroux left Uganda and took a teaching position at the University of Singapore. While there he published three novels set in Africa: Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers. As a group, these novels explore the frustrating and potentially tragic difficulties of social interaction in postcolonial Africa. In New York Review of Books Robert Towers wrote of Theroux: "Unafraid of ethnic generalizations, he spares no one—African, Englishman, Chinaman, Indian, American—in his wildly absurd confrontations between the old and the new exploiters and the poor bastards caught in the middle; recklessly he juxtaposes the crumbling institutions of colonialism with some of the more bizarre outgrowths of the Third World." In Fong and the Indians, for instance, Theroux describes the misadventures of a Chinese Catholic grocer in an imaginary African state. According to Saturday Review contributor Constance Wagner, the novel depicts "Africans, Asians, whites, cheating, despising, mistrusting one another. . . . With a smile Theroux lays bare the myopic self-serving not of Africa but of man. . . . Laugh as you will, you realize in the end that this short novel contains more of sanity and truth than a dozen fat morality plays on ugly Americanism."
Critics have found elements of satire and hopelessness in Theroux's novels about Africa. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer stated of Jungle Lovers that "Increasingly a more wryly observed Africa emerges from the condescension or primitivism of expatriate fiction. . . . [Theroux's] fable, with roots in satiric caricature and documentary terror, uses the linguistic complexity to underscore the wavering relationships between lingering British, Africans, and the two American protagonists." Writing in Spectator, Auberon Waugh called Jungle Lovers "the most vivid account of the sheer hopelessness of independent Black Africa" and "a serious and excellent novel, welcome above all for its refreshing pessimism." Evans suggested that a "repeated assertion of empathy for the blacks does not convincingly cover an attitude of paternalism" on the author's part in Jungle Lovers. Evans nevertheless added that in the book, "The British and American settlers are also viewed with ridicule, and Theroux seems content to leave the Americans' plans for change open to question." The destructive implications of one particularly naive American's plans for change form the violent climax of Girls at Play, a work one Times Literary Supplement critic characterized as "unremittingly depressing." New Yorker's Lardner felt that Theroux's novels set in Africa reveal him to be "a connoisseur of the conflict of ideals and illusions with things as they turn out to be." Irony, she concluded, "is his natural style."
While teaching in Singapore, Theroux was made to promise that he would not write any fiction about that island. The informal constraint was removed when he relocated in London, and he published Saint Jack, a novel set in Singapore. Atlantic reviewer Edward Weeks called the work "a highly professional, often amusing, withering account of prostitution in the once glamorous East." A low-key first person narrative by a middle-aged, expatriate American pimp, Saint Jack received substantial praise from critics. "There has never been any question about the quality of Theroux's prose or the bite of his satire," wrote Jonathan Yardley in Washington Post Book World. "In Saint Jack, more than in any of his previous fiction, the sardonic is balanced with compassion, and in Jack Flowers we are given a character whose yearnings touch upon our own." Evans thought the protagonist "could never change, because he represents life in Singapore. . . . Jack may dream of an ideal existence and wish that he could write the novel which would depict it, but he cannot. . . . Life will be a treadmill for him." Though Weeks suggested that under the surface humor "one is aware of the author's scorn for this disheveled, corrupt memento of colonialism," other reviewers cited Theroux for a sympathetic portrayal of a quixotic hero. "Jack Flowers is funny, endearing, outrageous, poignant, noble—and utterly believable," commented Yardley. "He is Paul Theroux's finest accomplishment." In 1979 Peter Bogdanovich directed the movie version of Saint Jack, based on a screenplay Theroux helped to write.
Theroux's commercial and critical success was still to a certain extent dependent upon his British readership when he published The Black House in 1974. The novel, a gothic tale with psychological dimensions set in a rural part of England, has garnered mixed reviews. New York Times Book Review contributor Michael Mewshaw felt that while "it is a tribute to [Theroux's] integrity and ambition that he is not content to keep repeating himself," The Black House is "an abrupt departure from the comic vision of his earlier work" and "does a serious disservice to his talent." Claire Tomalin offered a contrasting viewpoint in New Statesman. "The book is about a man panicked by doubts about just where he and other creatures do belong," Tomalin wrote. "The degree of skill with which Theroux handles these various themes, and the level of mastery of his writing, have produced a novel of unusual scope and promise still more for the future."
The Mosquito Coast, a novel published in 1982, is among Theroux's best-known works of fiction. Told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old narrator, the story explores a family's exodus from Massachusetts to the jungles of Honduras under the domination of a manic and eccentric father. Times Literary Supplement contributor Valentine Cunningham termed the father, Allie Fox, "a truly amazing and unforgettable figure, an American titan whose actions unlock the essences of oppressive Americanism, revealing evils we're to take as intrinsic to the rationality and mechanization that helped make his country what it is." Towers likewise cited the theme of "Yankee-ingenuity-gone-berserk" in his piece for New York Review of Books, adding that Theroux handles the concept "with commendable skill." Towers explained, "Though Allie Fox is an archetypal character whose career follows an emblematic line," "Theroux has avoided the sterility of much quasi-allegorical writing by endowing his main character with a lively and dense specificity." Jonathan Raban, meanwhile, commented in Saturday Review that "in Allie Fox, Theroux has created his first epic hero. If one can imagine an American tradition that takes in Benjamin Franklin, Captain Ahab, Huey Long, and the Reverend Jim Jones, then Allie Fox is its latest, most complete incarnation."
The Mosquito Coast garnered an American Book Award nomination along with favorable reviews. Raban termed the work "not just [Theroux's] finest novel so far. It is—in a characteristically hooded way—a novelist's act of self-definition, a midterm appraisal of his own resources. It is a wonderful book, with so many levels to it that it feels bottomless." Some critics, though, were not so impressed. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Edward M. White remarked that The Mosquito Coast is "an abstract and witty book, embodying Theroux's usual themes about the conflict of cultures. The abstraction is particularly damaging, here, however, where it becomes authorial manipulation of characters and plotting in the interests of theoretical design." In Chicago Tribune Book World, William Logan voiced the opinion that because Theroux "cannot create a human referent for his characters, the narrative is labored and overlong, the irony clumsy, and the end congested with symbolism." In his New York Times Book Review article, Thomas R. Edwards offered an opposite view. "Theroux's book . . . is, characteristically, a fine entertainment, a gripping adventure story, a remarkable comic portrait of minds and cultures at cross-purposes. But under its unintimidating surface, . . . 'The Mosquito Coast' shows a cosmopolitan expatriate novelist pondering his imaginative sources as an American writer, and the relation of those sources to the world as it now seems to be. This excellent story . . . is also an impressively serious act of imagination."
Theroux extended his ruminations on America fifty years into the future in his next work, the lengthy O-Zone. The novel, observed Yardley in the Washington Post Book World, "is on several counts a striking departure for its author. . . . It is his first genuinely 'American' novel . . . and it deals more directly with questions of American national identity and character than any of his other books, either fiction or nonfiction." The O-Zone of the title is a vast area located in the U.S. heartland that is evacuated after a supposedly disastrous nuclear accident, The inhabitants of an overpopulated and overpoliced New York City, the O-Zone represents both the terror of the unknown and a potential escape from a dreadful reality. The O-Zone, noted Yardley, "is a foreign place within a nation that has become foreign to itself." Eight New Yorkers travel to the O-Zone and are surprised to find themselves in a paradise that allows them to reclaim their common humanity. Their leader is a fifteen-year-old math whiz named Fizzy who, in the words of New York Times Book Review contributor Susan From-berg Schaeffer, is "the kind of man who can lead humanity out of the double wilderness of emotional alienation and dehumanizing science to achieve, in himself, a desperately needed symbiosis between the two."
Some reviewers saw Theroux's next effort, My Secret History, as an account of the author's own life, for the story of Andre Parent bears close resemblance to that of his creator. 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, and certain critics found in Parent's troubles clues to understanding Paul Theroux, despite Theroux's warning in a prefatory note: "Although some of the events and places depicted in the novel bear a similarity to those in my own life, the characters all strolled out of my imagination." The book, commented Yardley in Washington Post Book World, "is the story of a man so haunted by guilt and so driven by sexual greed that he is capable only in rare moments of seeing women as anything except agents for the appeasement of his lust." Thus Parent's secret history consists of hidden sexual pleasures and lies and it is not surprising when that history blows up in the character's face, shaking his surface life to its very core. Parent survives the clash of his public and his secret life largely because his wife allows him to transcend it. Thus, related New York Times Book Review contributor Wendy Lesser, My Secret History becomes a book "about the permanence of marriage in the face of mistrust and infidelity; it's about the wisdom of women and the foolishness of men; and it's about mature love as the necessary and sometimes successful antidote to youthful selfishness."
Theroux followed My Secret History with My Other Life in 1996. "This is a life I could have lived had things been different," the author noted in prefacing the work, a disclaimer similar to that which appeared in Theroux's previous novel. Characterizing the work as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, Piers Paul Read observed in Spectator that "the Theroux of this fiction, if not the real-life Theroux, clearly dislikes his life in London. . . . in[some]stories there are . . . stinging comments on English life, accurate enough when it comes to the literary world but verging on the absurd when it comes, for example, to the royal family. A bitchiness creeps in." In the London Observer Kate Kellaway speculated, "Perhaps Theroux's travel writing habits affect his attitude here," "He makes a grand tour of himself observantly but uncritically as if looking through a train window." Much of the book revolves around its protagonist questioning what his life would have been like had it been of the traditional sort—at one point he visits the former husband of an ex-lover, "because whoever he might be he was the man I would have become." Noting particularly the author's "rendering of women as twodimensional objects" and his "sourness about exwives," Rhoda Koenig commented in Wall Street Journal that "Theroux offhandedly tells us that things changed after he began spending so much time away writing his travel books. But isn't the real cause whatever it was that took him away?"
Parker Jagoda, the main character in Theroux's disturbing novel Chicago Loop, finds his own "other" life encroaching on his public life, but here the results are disastrous. Jagoda is a wealthy and fastidious Chicago businessman who lives with his beautiful wife in a ritzy North Shore neighborhood. He has begun placing personal ads in the Chicago newspapers, and when a pathetic blonde named Sharon responds, Jagoda leads her back to her apartment and brutally kills her, all the while telling himself that she has made him do it. Although Jagoda tries to suppress memories of the murder, the event keeps bubbling up in his consciousness and he decides that the only way to atone for his deed is to reenter Sharon's world—as Sharon. Thus begins an odyssey in which the successful urban professional dresses like the woman he has killed, seeks out situations where he will be sexually abused, and eventually commits a spectacularly appropriate suicide.
Theroux's 1994 novel Millroy the Magician also deals with a dual life, but one with overtones far less dark. The satiric tale revolves around narrator Jilly Farina, a fourteen-year-old girl who runs away from an abusive alcoholic father and becomes enthralled by Millroy, a carnival magician who serves as the book's hero. Millroy eventually becomes widely hailed on supermarket tabloids and talk shows for his skills as an evangelist of the American diet; he stars on a children's television show and begins opening up a chain of restaurants run by his dietary converts and featuring his own biblically sanctioned recipes. Jilly, disguised as Millroy's son, Alex, handles the business side of Millroy's career. Noting that the book depends on the technique of magic realism for its believability, Chicago Tribune Books critic Nicholas Delbanco thought that the development of the relationship between Jilly and Millroy "is never credible and takes too long. We feel as if we're getting every detail of Millroy's meteoric rise and fall, overhearing every conversation and meeting every visitor to trailer or diner or television studio or hut." Also feeling that the novel loses its effect as a parable due to the same matter-of-factness, Sven Birkets wrote in Washington Post Book World, "The thing about Millroy and his narration through Jilly's eyes is that we are never, not even at the last, sure whether there is genuine goodness in him or whether he is but another power-seeker awed by his own self-myth." Calling the book an "unusual, often funny, dark satire of America's obsession with trim bodies and religious television," New York Times Book Review critic Charles Johnson added that Millroy the Magician "may strike some readers as maddeningly predictable and aswim in stereotypes of Middle America, gay people, troubled children and people of color. . . . One can only hope that . . . those who reach the end of Mr. Theroux's three-ring circus of a novel see its final act as worth the price of admission."
Kowloon Tong is a timely political thriller in the Graham Greene vein: "Bunt" Mullard and his mother Betty, British expatriates in Hong Kong, live in a world of teas, horse races, and Macao casinos, until the impending takeover by the People's Republic of China throws them into a world of dangerous intrigue. A Chinese gangster is determined to gain control of their textile factory, and he won't take no for an answer. Theroux wryly observes that Hong Kong, originally taken from the Chinese by military force, is on the way to being taken back in a similarly brutal way. Thomas Kenneally, writing in New York Times, found Bunt's character excessively passive, but noted that "Theroux's astringent misanthropy and narrative momentum are powerful propellants." In New York Times Book Review, Richard Bernstein, deemed Kowloon Tong not one of Theroux's more ambitious works, "but one that is recognizably his, full of faulty, off-kilter characters and furnished with a graphic sense of place."
In Sunrise with Seamonsters Theroux writes: "Travel is a creative act—not simply loafing and inviting your soul, but feeding the imagination, accounting for each fresh wonder, memorizing and moving on. The discoveries the traveler makes in broad daylight—the curious problems of the eye he solves—resemble those that thrill and sustain a novelist in his solitude." Boarding a train at Victoria Station in London after dropping off his manuscript for The Black House with his publisher, Theroux then set off on a four-month odyssey through Asia, the Far East, and the former Soviet Union, eventually returning to his point of departure with "four thick notebooks" on his lap. The edited notebooks became The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia.
Though travel accounts are not generally known for their commercial appeal, The Great Railway Bazaarwas an enormous success. In Publishers Weekly, John F. Baker called Theroux's accomplishment an "amazing first." As Baker explained, the author "made his way onto the best seller list . . . with nothing more than a travel book, . . . thereby becoming probably the first writer since Mark Twain whose travels made a more than fleeting impression in booksellers' accounts." The work also garnered critical praise. Washington Post Book World contributor David Roberts thought the account "represents travel writing at its very best—almost the best, one is tempted to say, that it can attain. Paul Theroux . . . here transforms what was clearly a long, ultimately tedious journey by train . . . into a singularly entertaining book." "Though it is a travel book and not a novel," Towers commented, The Great Railway Bazaar "incorporates many of the qualities of Theroux's fiction: it is funny, sardonic, wonderfully sensuous and evocative in its descriptions, casually horrifying in its impact."
The success of The Great Railway Bazaar, combined with an admitted wanderlust, led Theroux to pen several more travel memoirs. Best known among these are The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around Great Britain, and The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean. Employing the same elements of rail travel, walking excursion, and personal rumination, these works explore Central and South America and the coastline regions of the British Isles, respectively, although none enjoyed the critical reception that attended publication of The Great Railway Bazaar. Some reviewers found the works scornful and repetitive; as Patrick Breslin noted of The Old Patagonian Express in Washington Post Book World, "Theroux so loses himself in the mechanics of how he got to Patagonia, and the people who irritated him along the way, that there is little room in the book for anything else. And since not very much out of the ordinary happened to him, one's interest flags." In New York Times, John Leonard commented that Theroux's traveling style "tends to be contentious; at the drop of an offhand remark in a bar or a dining car, he will opinionize." Leonard added, however, that "One forgives him because one tends to agree with his opinions."
The Pillars of Hercules is Theroux's account of his journey through the Mediterranean realm. Calling the book "a marketing department's dream," Graham Coster added in London Review of Books that the book is "designed with travel-brochure simplicity and accessibility" in mind. Washington Post Book World reviewer John Ash questioned many of Theroux's references to location—"Clearly, he travels intuitively, disdaining maps and guidebooks. . . . I'ma little surprised he made it home"—and felt that the author was arrogant and contemptuous toward his location. Regarding Theroux's dismissal of Greece—"The whole of Greece seemed to me to be a cut-price theme park of broken marble, a place where you were harangued in a high-minded way about Ancient Greek culture, while some swarthy little person picked your pocket"—Ash responded, "Theroux is famous for his curmudgeonly verve, but this is not that. It is fatuous and ugly." Stephen Greenblatt, however, wrote in New York Times Book Review that the many brief exchanges between Theroux and the people he meets on his journey "disclose a redeeming quality that lies behind Mr. Theroux's grumpiness and cynicism and helps to account for his improvisational energy: he is driven by an intense, insatiable curiosity."
Theroux has continued to produce fiction and travel chronicles into the twenty-first century. The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro and Other Stories is a collection of tales about sexual desire and its sometimes dangerous complications: One story deals with a Boston boy abused by a Roman Catholic priest, another with interracial love in South Africa. Theroux, "one of our fore-most chroniclers of the expatriate experience," in the words of Library Journal contributor David W. Henderson, "once again proves his adeptness at exploring otherness." Theroux, noted Rebecca Donner in People, handles "the complexities of matters of the heart with subtlety and grace." In the nonfiction work Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town Theroux revisits some of the African locales where he served with the Peace Corps, gets into arguments with Christian missionaries, and observes the political and social problems that affect much of Africa. "His cogent insights are well integrated," reported a Publishers Weekly reviewer, adding that "as a travel guide, Theroux can both rankle and beguile," but overall he has produced a "marvelous report."
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. Succinctly stating his position in Sunrise with Seamonsters, he commented: "The writer doesn't want a patron half so badly as he wants a paying public." The takeover of creative writing by the universities in the United States has, he said, "changed the profession out of all recognition. It has made it narrower, more rarified, more neurotic; it has altered the way literature is taught and it has diminished our pleasure in reading." Theroux's own writing, highly successful commercially, has not gained a great deal of attention within the academic community. As Theroux told Publishers Weekly, however, "No serious writer writes for money alone, but it's equally a mistake to think that if your writing makes money you're not serious." He remains greatly concerned, he admitted in a Chicago Tribune Book World interview, that his writing should continue to entertain readers. "My fear is that I'll be boring," he said. "You never actually run out of ideas, but you might run out of ideas that are intelligent, amusing, original. I don't want to be a bore. I would rather open a beauty parlor—I swear."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Coale, Samuel, Paul Theroux, Twayne (New York, NY), 1987.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5, 1976, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 28, 1984, Volume 46, 1988.
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Yale Review, spring, 1979.*