Escaping The Tyranny Of The Ordinary: Paul Theroux

The writer Paul Theroux has been cast in a great American tradition — as an inquirer, an idealist and, most importantly, a subversive. Originally published in Issue 64 of The Rake, James Medd writes that from his defining work, 1975’s The Great Railway Bazaar, he has helped us see the world anew.

Paul Theroux in Tahiti, French Polynesia, in 1991

America likes to think of itself as the gold standard of homeliness and righteous living, all apple pies and milk and cookies, but over its short life its greatest sons and daughters have been subversives. From George Washington to Malcolm X, Mark Twain to Bob Dylan, Harriet Beecher Stowe to Madonna Louise Ciccone, the Americans who really matter have been rebels and outsiders. To these add Paul Theroux, a fine novelist, great travel writer and that supposedly rarest of things, American ironist.

Theroux has always been on the move. Though he looks the epitome of east coast preppy, his background is quite humble. His father, Albert, was a salesman for the American Leather Oak Company, his mother, Anne, a teacher, and he was the third of seven children, born in 1941. The family home in Medford, Massachusetts was described in one New York Times profile of 1978 as “a drab working-class neighbourhood”, though the same piece quoted Theroux’s brother Alexander (also a novelist) and his aspiration to “make Medford Venice” — all of the five boys (though not, decidedly, the girls) were encouraged towards art by painter Anne and towards literature by the Dickens-quoting Albert. Still, to Paul, his parents had “no place, no influence, no money nor power”, and as late as 2013 he told The Guardian that his greatest debt to his parents was “their indifference to my writing, to my struggles in general. It gave me something to prove.”

Contributor

James Medd

Published

May 2021

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