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What's happening to Paul Theroux? In The Kingdom By the Sea (p. 955), his depressing view of England often seemed more bitter--and certainly more patronizing--than warranted by the facts. And now, in this shamefully thin ""book"" (about 50 small pages of actual text), he reduces a 1982 cruise down the Yangtse to a handful of impressions and anecdotes--most of them sour, despairing, simplistic. Sailing on luxury-boats the 1500 miles from Chungking to Shanghai, stopping at some ""mournfully backward"" towns and villages along the way, Theroux is depressed by the poverty, filth, and hard-working drear. Despite the post-Mao loosenings, he feels repression everywhere: ""I seldom heard the word 'education' in China without it sounding like a hard smack in the face."" Moreover, ""any change in China would be for the worse, which is a pity because is seemed so bad when I sailed through it."" And not only is China dreadful--it's a vision of our own future in the West: ""We are in for hunger and hard work, the highest state of poverty--no starvation, but crudeness everywhere, clumsy art, simple language, bad books, brutal laws, plain vegetables, and clothes of one colour. It will be damp and dull, like this."" (Even the one thrilling sight here--the Upper Yangtse gorges--becomes a banal downer: ""They will be here long after Man has destroyed himself with bombs."") Still, Theroux's distaste for China is outdone by his loathing for the millionaire Americans who are also on board: he quotes their provincial inanities with a sort of numb relish--and is so intent on the cartoon characterization that he sometimes seems removed from reality. (They even cheated at Scrabble. ""One lady insisted that adze was spelled 'adz.'"" It is.) Aside from an occasional vivid description and a few quirky conversations with Chinese people: a paltry collection of uninspired travel notes--suggesting more about Theroux's state-of-mind than about the complex state of China.

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 1983
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin