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Paul Theroux Writes With Sardonic Wit

Wed., Dec. 25, 1996

It takes a certain kind of writer to open a book with this line: “When people say of someone, ‘You’ll either love him or hate him,’ I always think I’ll hate him.”

Welcome to the world of Paul Theroux.

Candid, bitingly funny, nasty even, but scrupulously honest in intent, Theroux has written 20 books of fiction, including some that have been turned into movies such as “The Mosquito Coast,” “Saint Jack” and “Half Moon Street.”

More famously, perhaps, he’s written 10 travel books that recount in crisp, unsentimental prose his journeys across grand sweeps of the planet - the circumference of Asia in “The Great Railway Bazaar” (1975), the length of the Americas in “The Old Patagonian Express” (1979), the breadth of China in “Riding the Red Rooster” (1988) - odysseys that require a youthful vigor and constitution, an old hand’s savvy judgment, a good pair of walking shoes.

His acerbic comments and sardonic wit cross national and cultural boundaries, too.

On the English: “They wallpaper their ceilings! They put little knitted bobble-hats on their soft-boiled eggs to keep them warm! They don’t give you bags in supermarkets! They say sorry when you step on their toes! … They sunbathe in their underclothes!”

On Afghanistan: “The food smells of cholera, travel there is always uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, and the Afghans are lazy, idle and violent.”

Now the traveler is seated in the patio restaurant at a Santa Monica hotel bathed in pleasant autumn sunlight and in view of the sparkling Pacific.

His eyes hidden behind glasses with clip-on dark lenses, he’s pondering a question about day-to-day life in the vacationers’ island paradise of Hawaii, where he lives when he’s not traveling, or at his other home on Cape Cod.

“There’s a lot of pleasure, but it does require some skills,” says Theroux, 55. “You need a keen eye for stepping over the line. Space is at a premium there - cultural space, ethnic space, physical space. You have to be very careful at rubbing people the wrong way. And there are people who actually think that non-Hawaiians don’t belong. …”

Warming to his subject now, he’s beginning to sound a lot like his travel writing.

“There’s a gang problem, there’s a race problem, there’s a homeless problem, there’s a drug problem, there’s a crime problem. Now I’ll sound like the worst possible advertisement for a place where I live, and I really like this place.”

Still, he goes on and on, citing “in-your-face aggression,” “machismo,” “pressures” and “road rage.” Abruptly, he comes to a halt.

“When you ask me a question about Hawaii, I get the choice,” he says. “I can say, yes, it’s paradise. Because it is. But I want to keep reminding myself that it’s a real place. And that it has a lot of cars in it, and a lot of people who feel hard done by in it.

“If you’re a writer, you have to keep reminding yourself that you have to notice things. … Writing is all about seeing, knowing, hearing.”

Theroux has been doing a lot of thinking about the writer’s role recently. His newest book, “My Other Life,” is the fictional memoir of a writer called Paulie or Paul Theroux, whose life shares many similarities with that of the real Paul Theroux: Both went to Africa as Peace Corps volunteers and visited a leper colony; both taught English literature and began to write in Southeast Asia; both established literary reputations while living in London.

Still, the author insists that it’s fiction, not unlike an earlier book, “My Secret History,” another fictional memoir.

“They’re like bookends,” he says. “I wrote ‘My Secret History,’ and people said, ‘That’s not a novel, that’s really your life story.’ How can it be a life story? Every chapter in it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has unity, harmony. Life isn’t like that; life is so ragged.

“I thought, ‘I’ll simply write a book based on things I wished I would have done, improving some parts of it and taking advantage of some things that might have happened,”’ he says.

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