Theroux's 'Life' -- memoir? novel?

September 29, 1996|By J. Bottum | J. Bottum,special to the sun

"My Other Life," by Paul Theroux. 456 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.95.

No one has ever accused Paul Theroux of being a pleasant novelist. A good one, perhaps: from "Waldo" (1967) through "The Mosquito Coast" (1982), his well-constructed novels have been filled with prose that is always strong and occasionally superb. But they have been filled as well with characters so unpleasant the reader's skin begins to crawl.

It was instead with his nonfiction - especially his accounts of train travel in "The Great Railway Bazaar" (1975) and "The Old Patagonian Express" (1979) - that Theroux came into his own as a writer. Deeply influenced by the novelist V.S. Naipaul (whom he met while in Africa with the Peace Corps during the early 1960s), Theroux nevertheless managed to find only in his nonfiction the novelistic techniques every author needs for letting characters speak with living voices.

Perhaps some intuition of this gap between his fiction and nonfiction explains his recent attempts at what are either autobiographical novels or novelized autobiographies. In 1989, he published "My Secret History," the erotic adventures of a writer named Andre Parent. Though Theroux warned that his book was not autobiography, the warning mostly served (as he perhaps intended) to make reviewers notice parallels with Theroux's own life - and left them wondering whether Parent's sexual exploits were also paralleled by Theroux's.

With his latest work, "My Other Life," he writes what he declares in a murky introductory note to be a novel about a man who happens to have been reared in Medford, Mass., and who happens to have served in the Peace Corps, met many famous people, written well-received travel books, and settled in England. And his name merely happens to be "Paul Theroux."

More a collection of 18 stories than a single narrative, "My Other Life" starts with a rich idea for revisiting the places of its vagabond author's past and imagining what he might be like had he stayed on. The early chapters stumble with Theroux's failure to find in Africa a plausible model for his might-have-been life. But the middle stories, though overburdened with reports of his literary triumphs, show like a kaleidoscope the lives possible if his life had only taken different turns.

The book's most controversial story, "The Queen's Touch," gives an ugly little account of a meeting with Queen Elizabeth - which, if invented, inexcusably uses living people, and, if true, is at least an ill-mannered violation of the convention that private meetings with royalty are supposed to remain private. But even in the book's best story - "Medford: Next 3 Exits," a revisiting of his childhood and an imagining through other lives what kind of man he would have made - the author only manages to fictionalize himself as a weak and somewhat nasty character, a shadow beside the real people who populate the book.

In "My Other Life," Paul Theroux writes with his usual good prose and professionally develops an intelligent idea for using novelistic techniques in nonfiction. But if his purpose was to make his fictional self as pleasantly interesting as the real people in his travel books, he succeeds mostly in showing himself to be as unpleasant in real life as the characters in his fiction.

J. Bottum has a Ph.D. from Boston College, and for three year taught medieval philosophy at Coppin State College and Loyola College in Baltimore. He is currently associate editor of First Things in New York City and the fiction critic of the Weekly Standard. His literary reviews and essays appear regularly in Commentary, Crisis and other journals of opinion.

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