After more than 40 years of publishing short stories, Theroux has become a master of the form, with a deep capacity to engage, enchant and unsettle.
There’s something almost quaint—and ultimately gratifying—about the manner in which Theroux’s stories rely on irony, circumstance and character motivation while retaining their inscrutability. It’s a quality shared by all the great modern storytellers, from Chekhov to Cheever, and Theroux, better known for his witty, idiosyncratic travelogues, can claim their legacies as his own. What connect most of the 20 tales are characters getting even, getting back or just “getting theirs” at the expense of someone who may, or may not, deserve reprisals. In the case of “Rip It Up,” a chillingly prescient story of junior high outcasts collaborating on an explosive device to set off against their tormentors, the outcome yields disorienting, unexpected and ambivalent results. The same holds true for “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife,” in which a writer returns home for his father’s funeral and uses the occasion to torment a former teacher, now a helpless patient in a convalescent center, with stories suggestive (but never explicitly so) about past abuses by the teacher against the student. Outside of “Our Raccoon Year,” a tale of an over-the-top war against nature that seems a miniature version of Theroux’s best-known novel, The Mosquito Coast, the macabre and absurd elements of Theroux’s stories are more affecting for being rooted in the commonplace and the plausible. Even the shoe salesman in the title story who appears to veer into the deep end by indulging in blackface minstrelsy is depicted as someone you might have known or heard about while growing up. Such characters seem so odd but true that, in the same way he makes exotic locales worth visiting, Theroux inspires you to wonder what you’re overlooking when encountering friends, neighbors and strangers alike.
A versatile, prolific author asserts his pre-eminence in short fiction with an unassuming brilliance that almost makes you think stories will become popular again.