Many funny moments and a beguiling cast of bona fide English eccentrics adorn this charming picaresque coming-of-ager – the fictional debut of veteran novelist Paul Theroux’s son.
The story chronicles Horace Littlefair’s passage from the delightfully deranged provincial village of Great Much up to London to begin employment with the nondescript newspaper (the South London Bugle) that’s owned and operated by his hustling, social-climbing uncle Derwent Boothby. Theroux sets the plot aboil quickly, shifting his focus from the helpless Horace (who’s immediately victimized by a predatory cabdriver) to such prominent secondary characters as phlegmatic landlord Ugandan Mr. Narayan; centenarian Agnes Kettle (the subject of Horace’s first in-person interview); and unlikely best pal Trevor Diamond, a passionate environmentalist dedicated to saving “the urban fox” from public opprobrium and extinction. The ineffably good-natured and game Horace is a perfect foil in an interlocking series of misadventures that begins when he inadvertently causes the deportation of a Polish shop girl who had caught his fancy, picks up steam when a randy MP (Barnaby Colefax) is caught in flagrante with an accommodating prostitute, and climaxes when the mystery of whether Horace is indeed “the grandson of a famous communist” coincides hilariously with an “anti-quarantine rally” organized to save the foxes and put the duplicitous Barnaby firmly in his place. Without laboring the point, Theroux draws an amusing, touching parallel between the endangered foxes and the almost preternaturally innocent Horace (who is, incidentally and happily, no match for any of the several resourceful and forthright women here).
Despite a slight relaxation of comic tension at the close, a wonderfully intelligent, generously imagined, skillfully executed debut. If its occasionally Waspish observations of human folly bring to mind both Evelyn Waugh and Theroux père, its infectious enthusiasm and warmth announce the appearance of a gifted young writer very much his own man.