THE CHARACTERS in Paul Theroux's World's End and Other Stories suffer the consequences of changes -- the changes of place and the changes of time. Most of them are outsiders, strangers to the places and times in which they find themselves, and many have reached the limits of those places and times, are at boundaries marking the ends of their various worlds.
Theroux writes with authority and care. His style and tone shift with the nature and mood of these 15 stories, ranging from the tragic and frightening to the very funny. The settings are as various as the situations they reveal: London, the Caribbean, East Sandwich, rural France, Corsica, Africa, Paris, Germany and San Juan. In spite of all this variety, World's End doesn't read like an anthology; it has the unity of a whole. Though each of the stories stands alone, many of them gain power by their innocents abroad, of outsiders and castaways struggling to cope with alien ways, unites the collection. The metaphorical qualities of the title, "World's End," reverberate throughout the book.
Theroux uses care in the placement of the stories, beginning with the important title story, a story both frightening and lovely. Robarge, an American businessman, has tranplanted his family to World's End in London. He loves to come home and close the door against the darkness and "smell the straightness of his own rooms." He takes his son on an outing to fly a kite; the boy knows just where to go, knows the kite needs a tail, finds the wind. The boy is "pointing at nothing Robarge could see," until, eventually, he reveals that he has been here before, has done this before, with "Mummy's friend." Now Robarge sees everything, sees the "trampled pine needles, the seclusion of the trees." World's End is now unfamiliar, a place of darkness and loss, and Robarge wishes he were not so far from home. The thematic motifs, loss, estrangement, loneliness, endings, are established in this powerful opening story.
Stories are richly juxtaposed. "The Imperial Icehouse," for example, follows "Zombies," in which Miss Bristow, an 82-year-old writer who has lived to see her work rediscovered, discusses her icehouse story. "But they did not know that they were dying, like Romans becoming Italians" -- the last line of her story, written out of her past, memory taking Miss Bristow to her world's end: "It startled her to remember these years -- other lives in another world."
Comic pieces, such as "Yard Sale," in which Floyd, "with hair like varnished kapok and teeth gleaming like Chiclets," returns to East Sandwich after two years in Western Samoa, are placed next to grimmer stories such as "The Imperial Icehouse." There are several of these comic tales: "Algebra," in which Michael Insole moves easily into the literary world on the basis of an impulsive lie which he refines into his own well-developed story; "The Odd-Job Man," about Amhert Professor Bloodworth who heads off to the village of Hooke, in Kent, on the trail of the poet Walter Van Bellamy and any new discoveries he can parlay into a secure academic reputation; "Acknowledgments," perhaps the weakest story in the book because the humor is so easy, so predictable, playing off the conventional list of acknowlegements in which an author thanks everyone in the country for assisting him.
The longest story, almost a novella, "The Greenest Island," details with painfully vivid scenes how illusions slowly slip away from Paula and Duval after they flee to San Juan rather than face their families with the fact of Paula's pregnancy. They wait for the birth of the child, listless in a world of beggars, cripples, cockroaches and the hot, damp smells of garbage and sewage, living on the deposits they collect for Pepsi bottles, scraping the mold off their bread, their waiting at world's end "as solemn as a deathwatch."
These stories are moving, disturbing, richly told. Theroux renders textures with fine details: "Richard's face in the darkened room was the yellow-green hue of the television screen . . . the blue fibers of his pajamas glowed as if sprinkled with salt." And: "His shoulder was soaked; the wagon had begun to drip, dark pennies in the dust that dried almost as soon as they formed."
Paul Theroux's World's End and Other Stories is a carefully crafted, entertaining, vivdly haunting book.