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.”
After English Literature at the universities of Maine and then Massachusetts, Theroux hightailed it out of the country. This he did under the auspices of the newly formed Peace Corps, which sent him to Malawi as a teacher, though he lasted no time at all, becoming involved in the escape of an opponent of Prime Minister Hastings Banda, and possibly a coup. Having driven 2,500 miles through roadblocks to pass on a car to resistance forces, he was expelled from the country. “Better that than the tyranny of the ordinary,” was his telling later verdict on the episode.
His next stop was Uganda, where he taught at Makerere University and met his longterm friend and fellow writer V.S. Naipaul, as well as his first wife, Anne. It was also here that he began to write, publishing his first novel, Waldo, in 1967. About a boy in a school for delinquents, it was the first sign of Theroux’s overarching interest in outsiders and obsessives, an interest that went on to include the pimp of 1973’s Saint Jack as well as Allie Fox in 1981’s The Mosquito Coast, whose utopian impulse leads to a heart of darkness in the South American jungle.