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28 November 2014

Furies unleashed: the sinister short stories of Paul Theroux

Theroux’s lively imagination ranges from Hawaii to Alabama to the Amazon, and often portrays the disintegration of love and the disappointment when a promising sequel leads to bitterness.

By Jeffrey Meyers

Mr Bones: Twenty Stories 
Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton, 359pp, £18.99

Paul Theroux combines the traveller’s hawk-eye with the novelist’s keen insight, an ear for the subtleties of foreign speech with the satirist’s evisceration of the art and literary worlds. An undercurrent of corrosive anger – as in Kipling’s Stalky & Co and “Dayspring Mishandled” – frequently erupts into ingenious revenge and cruel degradation. Theroux’s lively imagination ranges from Hawaii to Alabama to Cape Cod, from Thailand to Africa to the Amazon, and often portrays the disintegration of love and the disappointment when a promising sequel leads to bitterness.

In “The Furies” a wife, abandoned by her dentist husband for his young hygienist, damns him with a curse. When he takes his new wife to a high-school reunion in Medford, Massachusetts (Theroux’s home town), all the women he has hurt in his youth reappear to accuse and attack him. One exclaims that he got her pregnant and destroyed her life; another warns the new wife that he will betray her, too. He tries to reassure his wife that “those women are all gone and forgotten”, but is forced to realise that “each person in [his] past is an aspect” of his rotten character.

“Minor Watt” (also the name of the forceful hero, ironically suggesting low voltage) opens with a dazzling description of his eclectic art collection, from Ming pottery to Fijian war clubs. Yet, driven by complex motives, he irrationally smashes a Chinese vase, slashes a Bacon portrait, shoots an arrow into his Kenneth Noland target painting, drops a pile of ceramics from his penthouse roof and hammers a celadon bowl to pieces. People consider him dangerous, even insane. His art objects resemble prisoners awaiting execution on Death Row. He imitates infamous episodes of iconoclasm, from Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities to the Nazi immolation of “degenerate art”.

Watt’s destructive spree is the mirror image of his acquisition. Dealers who continue to sell him art, knowing that he will destroy it, become eager collaborators, and the increasing scarcity of rare pieces drives up the prices. His shift from sybaritic greed to aesthetic cannibalism requires an audience and he gleefully horrifies a series of passive witnesses who have admired his wealth and taste. When an impoverished Indian woman who has lost her job at an art gallery becomes his latest and most valuable possession, Watt behaves according to form. He first supports and protects her and then suddenly turns against her.

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Both “Siamese Nights” and “The First World”, brilliant stories with antithetical endings, portray an American man’s almost impossible love for an Asian woman. In “Siamese Nights” Theroux deftly evokes a village “greeny-gold in the sunshine, the graceful huts on stilts, in the thickness of banana trees, under the feather umbrellas of palms”. Boyd Osier, a conventional expatriate businessman nearing retirement, owns a different kind of country house in Maine and phones his wife every day, lying both to her and to his mistress. At the busy Bangkok railway station where Osier goes to sketch people, he is aggressively confronted by a grotesque hag: a man in woman’s clothes. By contrast, he is strangely attracted to a Thai bar girl, “tall, thin, slender, a bit aloof, possibly haughty or else shy”, with a “pretty fallen-angel face”. Although she proves to be not what he expected – “a freak of nature, a kind of unicorn” – he seizes his last guilty chance for passion. As she exposes his true sexual desires, he becomes increasingly obsessed with her; but when he tries to break it off, she takes bitter revenge.

In “The First World” a scrap-metal tycoon, after four failed marriages, moves to Nantucket and plans to build a huge mansion on the island, but is blocked by the town planning board. He hires an attractive young Vietnamese servant, with limited English, who is devoted to him and whose self-denying mode of survival is the opposite of his own aggressive bullying: “Learn to do without. Don’t get angry. Don’t show emotion. Beware of needing anything.” At first she refuses to have sex with him, but after he rescues her from drowning near his boat, she changes her mind. When she transforms into a “dragon lady of intimidating beauty, upswept coiffure and crimson talons” to attend a fashionable party, he happily marries her and uses her to settle his score with society.

Though best known as a travel writer and novelist – with Saint Jack and The Mosquito Coast made into fine films – Theroux also has an impressive range of interests and knowledge, as well as an uncanny ability to rivet the reader in the characters and plots of his unsettling stories.