cover image THE STRANGER AT THE PALAZZO D'ORO: And Other Stories


Paul Theroux, . . Houghton Mifflin, $23 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-618-26515-2

Theroux's characteristic haze of exoticism hangs over this uneven collection of two novellas and two stories, ushered in by the gothic title novella, which tells a tale of sexual perversity in Taormina, Sicily, in 1962. Gilford Mariner, a young American artist, is traveling around Italy imagining himself as a hero in an Antonioni movie. But when he encounters a rich German countess ("the Gr™fin") and her consort, Haroun, a Chaldean doctor, the movie turns into a Visconti: baroque, kinky and slightly kitschy. Haroun pays for Mariner to become the Gr™fin's lover, an alternately arousing and demeaning chore from which Mariner is only released when Haroun reveals the countess's "secret." In the four parts of "A Judas Memoir," Andy, the narrator, is a preteen Catholic in Medford, Mass., in an era when sexual repression meant something: the 1940s. Evelyn Frisch is a bold nymph who shows Andy the wonders of female urination in his back yard before his parents put a stop to it. We then jump to the affair between a horny schoolmate's mother and a milkman, and the perplexing discovery, on the part of Andy and his buddies, that the local priest, Father Staley, is a pedophile. In "An African Story," a Afrikaner farmer/writer is disastrously fixated on a one-armed black woman. Finally, in "Disheveled Nymphs," a retired lawyer becomes so infatuated with the mother and daughter team who clean his house in Hawaii that he stalks them on their vacation to Vegas. Theroux's title story is bigger on portentousness ("This is my only story," it begins) than revelation. By contrast, the quieter moments in other stories (Evelyn Frisch's giggling micturations, the Hawaiian maids' casual putdowns) are real gems of observation. (Jan. 12)