From Theroux the wanderer, the story of a wandering American who becomes a German aristocrat’s concubine, and other, lesser, tales.
When not spitting out his venom at the real world that he loves to traverse, Theroux (Hotel Honolulu, 2001) likes to dash off fiction, which, although well-informed by his travels, rarely lives up to the nonfiction. During his last travelogue (Dark Star Safari, 2003), he occasionally mentioned that he was penning an erotic story, which one assumes to be the centerpiece of this newest collection. It’s a roughly hundred-page novella that skips by like a thirty-pager and concerns a young American idling about a Sicilian town in 1962. He becomes entranced by a wealthy couple staying at the luxurious Palazzo D’Oro and makes the acquaintance of the man, Haroun, a Chaldean from Baghdad, who is not the golden-haired woman’s spouse, but doctor. Soon Haroun has the American ensconced in a room at the Palazzo and is trying to entice him into becoming the lover of the woman—an older German baroness of steely, arrogant beauty. The relationship, once begun, is more like a battle than an affair, with the American serving to satisfy the baroness’s insatiable masochism in the bedroom even as she ridicules him outside it: “She intended to enrage me so that later, in her room, I would dominate her and treat [her] as my slave.” The story has a sun-baked, self-consciously decadent, Barry Unsworth feel that makes it enjoyable in a sleazy way. Of much less effect are the four Boston-set tales that follow, well-crafted glimpses of angst-fraught adolescence, but nothing especially memorable. Meanwhile, Theroux can’t stay away from travel or sex for long, and in “An African Story,” an older, white South African farmer gets involved with a black woman and, sure enough, discovers her to need punishment: “sex is about power.”
Material that still leaves you wishing Theroux would chuck the imagineering and get his cantankerous self back on the road.