Paul Theroux (born 1941) was an expatriate American writer of numerous works of fiction and of the chronicles of his own travels by train throughout the world. He was a keen observer of the relationships between people and their environments.
Paul Theroux was a professional outsider. The expatriate American author of three travel books, four books of short stories, and almost a dozen novels, Theroux used his own sense of not belonging to show how others try to get along away from home. His sense of irony often revealed as much about the wayfaring author as about his subjects.
Born April 10, 1941, in Medford, Massachusetts, the third of seven children, Theroux was of French-Canadian/ Italian descent. His brothers and sisters, all independent, were all encouraged to write by their father, a salesman who read aloud from Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. At an early age Theroux and two of his brothers put out competing family newspapers with stories of the day's activities.
In 1959 Theroux went to the University of Maine, but he transferred after a year to the University of Massachusetts where he studied first pre-med and then English. He received his BA in 1963 and joined the Peace Corps to avoid the draft.
Theroux's first Peace Corps assignment was in East Africa, where he lectured in English in a school in Limbe, Malawi. He was expelled in 1965, however, for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate the president of the country. Theroux did not leave Africa. With the help of a friend he found a job teaching English and current affairs at a university in Kampala, Uganda. While there he wrote a number of free-lance magazine pieces and worked on his first novel. It was also there that he was befriended by author V. S. Naipaul, who helped the young writer with his work.
Fiction Dealing With People and Environment
His first novel, Waldo, the picaresque story of a young man who became a success as a writer, was published in 1966. A keen manipulator of expectations versus reality, Theroux's next book, Fong and the Indians (1968), dealt with the complicated social changes of emerging East African countries. Theroux chose as his protagonist a bungling anti-hero, Sam Fong, a Chinese Catholic grocer. Whether in his fiction or in his travel books, Theroux's characters cut back across the grain of their expectations when confronted with a new environment.
In 1968 Theroux finally left Africa after being trapped in a street riot. Not ready to settle down, he took a position as an English literature teacher at the University of Singapore. There he wrote numerous short stories and a study of his mentor, V. S. Naipaul. He also wrote two novels set in Africa, Girls at Play (1969) and Jungle Lovers (1971). Again, his subjects were the disenfranchised.
Girls at Play deals with the psychological and social pressures exerted by a foreign environment on a group of English and American schoolteachers stationed in the bush of Kenya. Jungle Lovers pits two characters against their own misconceptions of Africa and ultimately against their growing disenchantment.
In 1971 Theroux left Singapore for England, where he spent most of his time into the 1980s. (His summers were usually spent on Cape Cod in the United States.) There he devoted himself to writing. In 1972 he came out with a diverse collection of short stories, Sinning With Annie and Other Stories, and a satirical look at the reverse culture shock he was feeling back in the West in The Black House. The hero of Saint Jack (1973) was the first of Theroux's more complicated characters, but the book explored the familiar themes. Jack Flowers, a middle-aged American expatriate in Singapore, runs a whorehouse and offers readers of Saint Jack a cynical narrator-philosopher. The book was later turned into a movie.
Travel Books and More Fiction
But it was as a traveler that Theroux made his greatest mark. After the publication of The Black House he left on a four-month train trip through Asia. The result was The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, a chronicle of his trip from London through the Middle East, Malaysia, and Siberia. In a kind of travel guide/autobiography, Theroux examined the outsider as he drew out confidences from other passengers and mixed them with personal narrative. It was his first best seller.
In Saint Jack Theroux wrote of fiction as a tool that offers "the second chances life denied." In The Family Arsenal (1976) Theroux fictionalized some of the people he had observed on his trip. This time one anti-hero is Valentine Hood, a disenchanted American who is dismissed from his diplomatic post after assaulting an official of the South Vietnamese government. In Picture Palace (1978) he again allowed fiction to take his characters where reality hadn't. Based on the true-life photographer Jill Krementz, Theroux's Maude Coffin Pratt explores the relationship between an artist's life and her work.
Theroux's two other travel books, The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (1979) and The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain (1983), continued to test the waters of strange new worlds. "What interests me, " he wrote in The Old Patagonian Express, "is the waking in the morning, the progress from the familiar to the slightly odd, to the rather strange, to the totally foreign, and finally to the outlandish."
Prolific, Theroux also published The Consul's File (1977), the short novels The Mosquito Coast (1982) and Half Moon Street (1985), and World's End and Other Stories (1980). In 1985 Sunrise With Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries 1964-1984 was published. It is a series of short pieces—literary essays, travel articles, and profiles. It was followed by a long novel, O-Zone (1986), his first America-centered work.
More recently, Theroux wrote Chicago Loop (1991); The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (1992); Millroy the Magician (1994); The Pillars of Hercules (1995); My Other Life (1996); and Kowloon Tong (1997).
He was married to Anne Castle Theroux and was the father of two sons.
Ever the outsider, Theroux's world is populated by people who don't seem to belong in their environment. Like the author riding a train toward the outlandish, for them the mystery is what will come next.
Further Reading on Paul Theroux
In addition to his travel books as autobiography, including My Other Life (1996), Theroux has done numerous interviews with journalists. There is a chapter about him in Conversations With American Writers by Charles Ruas (1985). Two excellent magazine pieces about the author are a profile by Mel Gussow in the New York Times (July 28, 1976) and a retrospective review of Theroux by Hugh Hebert in Guardian (April 17, 1973). Susan Larner's review of Half Moon Street in The New Yorker (January 7, 1985) also discusses Theroux's earlier work. Theroux's Five Travel Epiphanies for Forbes magazine in 1995 discusses his five most interesting experiences while traveling.