Books of short stories are often difficult to review, particularly when the stories do not overlap, one to another, almost like a novel in short stories. But I have long considered Paul Theroux to be one of America’s most important writers in three different genres: travel writing, fiction, and short fiction. Theroux burst on the scene 40 years ago with The Great Railway Bazaar, the first of many supposed travel books. Theroux is to travel writing what M.F.K. Fischer is to food writing: each uses the outlines of the genre to tell us about the world. Theroux has always been a solitary traveler, curious about places and people, and he has traversed just about every continent in his wanderings. He travels as a way of finding himself through the exotic, the underbelly of places, dark spots and, sometimes demonic episodes. Over the many years that he’s been writing, he has become more and more of a curmudgeon, as he tends to see people at their worst, more than at their best. Travel has, indeed, broadened his horizons; he originally hails from Medford, Mass, a blue collar suburb of Boston, home to Tufts University, where his family were townies. I have guessed that his father owned some kind of men’s haberdashery in or on whatever the main street of Medford is. He often refers in his books to the boredom and tedium of life in Medford, where I have long assumed that he suffered some kind of early emotional trauma. One of his novels, Hotel Honolulu, presents such a dark portrait of human nature that it is almost frightening, but I admire his ability to be drawn to these dark places and let us know that they exist everywhere. If he were religious, which he is clearly not, one might think that he was on a worldwide chase to meet the devil.
Some of his books are in the same category as early Graham Greene, some remind me of Robert Stone, better, and I think that novelist Dennis Johnson is becoming Theroux’s worthy heir and acolyte. The joy that we often find in traveling has been mitigated by the rampant excesses of what I call “security capitalism”, wherein large chunks of the less developed world are full of mercenaries, “security” personnel and swashbuckling macho men looking for quick fortunes, whether or not attached to some security force. It’s not that the CIA is lurking in the background; that would be too easy for Theroux. What he finds, instead, is a rampant, corrupt, cruel greed wherever he goes. His predecessor in this territory is the great V.S. Naipul, whose 1967 novel A Bend in the River shocked the literary and political worlds with its indictments of the dictators who were running so many African nations right after the departure of colonial powers. These dictators are prototypical characters for both Theroux and Naipul, who were once great friends, but some rift tore their friendship apart.
Theroux is a master of short fiction, able to create entire worlds in limited space and with limited words. Mr. Bones, his latest, presumes a world rife with manipulative people most of whom use sex as a weapon against one another, a world where men and women never trust anyone, and where relationships are more like temporary, expedient alliances (in America, I believe that we call this networking, and Theroux sees right through such concepts, and sees the demoralizing elements when no one is a friend or legitimate lover, and people’s alliances shift based on temporary need and short term greed). His is hardly an optimistic view of human nature, but, then, it never has been. His novel Blinding Light is a frightening study in the devolution of any civilized manners or behavior, as first world “seekers” try to find some magic drug deep in the jungles of South America: this may be Theroux’s best novel.
The first story in the current collection is called Minor Watt. I use it as an example here because it is set in the art world. Mr. Watt is an art collector whose taste is widely known to be elegant, and he is much sought after by artists, other collectors, dealers, and auction houses. His collections are housed in his Manhattan apartment and his house on Long Island Sound in Southern Connecticut, presumably in Fairfield County. Theroux is able to almost show off his knowledge about obscure tribal arts from all over the world, and he enjoys watching “experts” guess what objects are and be wrong both by centuries and by thousands of miles. But on a darker note, Watt decides to begin to destroy his art collection, piece by piece by piece, and he happiest when he does so in front of other collectors, who always thing that they will stop him, and never do. He becomes an art world star, less for the collections than for this destruction of it. For those who despise him, there are many others who form a near cult around him. Not a dealer nor an auction house will refuse his money, so he holds all of them in increasing contempt. This story seems very close to possible, and it indicates how quickly anything can become a fad in the arts, how quickly a creative act can become a destructive one. There is no moment where Watt doesn’t enjoy destroying these objects of beauty, and he reminds other collectors that each time he destroys a piece, people who own others will watch theirs go up in value, because there is one less of them. His views of human nature and of the art world are incredibly dark, but not far from the truth.
Nearly every other story in Mr. Bones has some similar theme, where bad behavior and evil conscience dominate virtually everything. These are 20 tough stories, showing Theroux at his most sophisticated, most worldly, and, even, most jaded. Theroux’s fiction must be seen as a warning to the rest of us that the consequences of inaction breed corruption and despair.
— Daniel Brown