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The narrator of these 18 stories is the same American diplomat who kept The Consul's File (1977), but there the resemblance ends: while the Malaysia-based stories in the earlier collection were varied, haunting, and full-bodied, these are glossy anecdotes for the most part--with far more focus on the narrator himself, who acquires a name here (""Spencer Monroe Savage""), if not much in the way of real character. Now assigned to the US Embassy in London, Spencer tells stories about his eccentric colleagues: a woman who substitutes cat-love for romance; a black attachÉ who passes on an obvious little puzzle-story about racism; a male telex operator who blithely, un-sexually wears an earring until Spencer, on orders from a neurotically threatened superior, manages to make the man feel self-conscious. There are edgy relationships with locals: a helpful English lady who turns viciously mercenary; a mild-mannered neighbor whom Spencer never connects with his ""other"" neighbor, a midnight motorcyclist; a penniless, titled eccentric who's at least alive (unlike his famed, suicidal psychiatrist). And, before a final brace of stories introduce Spencer to the PM (""Even her hair looked hard"") and his True Love (an unpersausive love/marriage fadeout), there'll be several brushes with American expatriates and would-be Americans: a mad, Robert-Lowell-like poet, spewing out anti-Semitic poems in the asylum; a homosexual duo headed for California, with one of the two returning hetero (and unhappy); a Russian defector who wishes he were back in Siberia; a supposed victim of terrorism, really a victim of a homosexual lover's-quarrel; and a woman who takes scissors to the lover who dumped and cheated her. Throughout, the Theroux gifts for breezy narration and smart dialogue are in good working order. The character-sketchings and mild twists are faintly amusing. But, unlike The Consul's File stories, these vignettes have a smug, thin sameness about them, an artificiality that seems to go along with the undeniable readability: they go down like gumdrops, in fact, and they're just about as nourishing.

Pub Date: March 15th, 1983
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin