A well-traveled writer contemplates the long, menacing shadow his mother has cast over his life.
Jay, the narrator of this bile-infused family saga, is a little like Theroux (Deep South, 2015, etc.) himself, a late-middle-aged novelist and travel writer with Massachusetts roots. Jay is one of seven living children whose mother, as the story opens, has just been widowed. Every child has disappointed her in some regard, with the exception of a stillborn daughter: one is too fat, another married badly, another is a poor parent. Jay? He writes novels ("trash,” mom says), is twice divorced, and shamed the family by getting a girl pregnant at 18. And, now living a 10-minute drive away, he’s damned for either not visiting enough or upsetting her when he does arrive; siblings routinely call to chastise him for some misstep or other, and he suspects dear mother deliberately sabotaged a budding relationship. Is mom a monster, or is Jay projecting his own self-loathing upon her? Some of both, though the storytelling is too straightforward to suggest an unreliable narrator, and once Jay sneaks a peek at mom’s finances he has genuine proof he’s low on the pecking order. Theroux’s writing is robust as ever, but this story is overly repetitive, filled with countless metaphorical comparisons of the family to uncivilized brutes (“a savage tribe that practiced endocannibalism, feeding on ourselves,” goes one typical riff). And the dramas that surround mother as she ages past the century mark tend to be well-worn matters of money and property, along with slights real and perceived. That goes a long way toward suggesting that family life can be a death by a thousand cuts, but it makes for a long trek in a hefty novel.
A sodden study of domestic resentment.