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 Americanswhoreally matter have been rebels and outsiders. To these add Paul Theroux,afine novelist, great travel writer and that supposedly rarest of things, American ironist.
Theroux has always been on the move. Though he looks the epitome ofeastcoastpreppy, 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 oneNew York Timesprofile of 1978 as“a drab working-classneighbourhood”, though the same piece quoted Theroux’s brother Alexander (also a novelist) and his aspiration to“make Medford Venice”—allof thefive boys (though not, decidedly, the girls) were encouraged towards art by painter Anne and towards literature bytheDickens-quoting Albert. Still, to Paul,his parents had“no place, no influence, no money nor power”,and as late as 2013 he toldThe Guardianthat his greatest debt to his parents was“their indifference to my writing,tomy 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 PrimeMinisterHastings 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 wasthefirst sign of Theroux’s overarching interest in outsiders and obsessives,an interest that went on to includethe pimp of 1973’sSaint Jackas well asAllie Fox in 1981’sThe Mosquito Coast, whose utopian impulse leads to a heart of darkness in the South American jungle.