A feast, a bazaar, a joy--and a coup. No easy feat, over a span of five years, to produce twenty self-sufficient stories in assorted genres--detective, ghost, farce, quiet tragedy or comedy--and have them all (well, all but one) come out neck-laced on a shapely string of setting, tone, and character. With the tiny Malaysian town of Ayer Hitam and the deceptively inconspicuous narrative voice of a young American diplomat who's been sent to phase out the Consulate there, that's precisely what Paul Theroux (The Family Arsenal, Great Railway Bazaar) has achieved. Malays, Indians, Chinese, hold-out colonials--""the Empire's orphans""--these are the Chekhovian sorts who shuffle from story to story, sometimes in the background, sometimes in a featured role. At a ""White Christmas"" gathering, Reggie Woo, heir to the City Bar coffee shop, is just one of a motley group that drinks and hums away its ethno-religious differences; later, when he briefly rides an illusion of film stardom, he gets his own sad story--and the Christmas party host turns up as part of the anti-Japanese contingent (""I say, there's a nip in the air"") that baits a tennis-playing visitor to the multi-racial town Club. The consul also explores beyond the town--visiting a neighboring Sultan (provoked, he calls the Carnaby-Streeted sultan's daughter a ""fat overprivileged little prig""), neatly solving murders in Johore, meeting and dancing away from a former lover in Singapore. Only ""The Autumn Dog"" isn't told by the consul, and though its newly liberated heroine in Bali is a refugee from Ayer Hitam, it doesn't fit--and its hard-edged tone momentarily breaks the spell that's been so enticingly, humanely cast by Paul Theroux, his coolly charming persona, and the diehards, self-deceivers, and wonderfully wayward fools of Ayer Hitam.