Paul Theroux's touch is firmer, funnier and truer with each novel that he writes. Once again the broader frame of reference is transcultural and the inflections are perfectly pitched -- so is the scene (Singapore this time) set, or rather overheard, in the ""papery rustle"" of palm fronds or rattan or whirring dung beetles. Here an American Jack Flowers has spent fifteen years odd-jobbing for a ship chandler Big Hing while also doing some ""conscientious shepherding"" of tourists from offices and clubs to the city's bars and brothels. During this time a man called Leigh who comes to audit Big Hing's books and views Jack's poncing with pinch-nosed disapproval suddenly dies -- reminding Jack of himself -- summoning up his whole past as well as the shaky rationale of his present. From a figure of genial, glad-handing bonhomie (""a finger in every tart"") he becomes a caricature of crumpled middle age. But, gratefully, not for long. Innocence and confidence return -- even a certain probity. After all, are not his catered services more justifiable than the ""anonymous savagery of the new pornography"" threatening to make him obsolescent? As always, Theroux is not to be read in a ""hurry-lah"" since you will miss a great deal -- much that is simultaneously direct and allusive (cf. Jack on religion -- the worst ones ""rob you of your secrets by reminding you that you're all in the same sinking boat."" He likes his to be ""a private affair ashore, a fire by a stone, a smoky offering""). Indeed over and above the tatty realities, Jack, call me St. Jack, is a concessionaire of more than those passing pleasures. He's a rowdy, generous one-of-a-kind character who rises with the benefit of Theroux's confirmed talent. You like to think of him up there.