cover image Theroux: Collected Stories

Theroux: Collected Stories

Paul Theroux. Viking Books, $29.95 (672pp) ISBN 978-0-670-86127-9

Best known for his novels and travel writing, Theroux (My Other Life; The Pillars of Hercules) has also been a prolific writer of short fiction throughout his career. Like his longer works, his stories unfold in settings ranging from England to Africa and explore the same themes of separation and the search for love and belonging. Of the 60-odd tales collected here, the earliest ones--such as ""World's End,"" about a married man whose suspicion of his wife's infidelity turns their young son into a pawn in the couple's battle--have a curiously 19th-century feel. With their ironic plot twists and old-fashioned structure, they bring to mind the work of O. Henry and de Maupassant. Those written later take on a more playful postmodern tone. ""Sinning with Annie,"" set in India, is narrated by a penitent octogenarian who was sexually innocent when he was married at 13 to his 11-year-old bride. The frisson comes as he gradually reveals his perverted concept of conjugal relations. Several of these short fictions are satires of the literary life. Some of these, such as the charming ""Algebra"" and ""Biographical Notes for Four American Poets,"" are affectionate; others, including ""The Exile"" and ""The Honorary Siberian"" (both of which involve Walter Van Bellamy, a fictional American poet living in London, who appears in a handful of stories here), are considerably darker. The bulk of the stories center around an American counsel, Spencer Savage, and his picaresque adventures in love and diplomacy, beginning in Malaysia and ending in London. It is in these later stories that Theroux's skill at characterization and evoking emotional life can be seen in full flower, alongside his distinctive gift for capturing the misunderstandings that take place when differing cultures meet. (July)