MONSTERS are never far from Paul Theroux. They loiter opposite him on railway carriages and buttonhole him in down-at-heel provincial towns -- outlandish gargoyles of tourists or just repulsively ordinary folk. He greets them with glee, of course. Eccentrics parade through his novels; and readers of his travel-books -- regaled by yet another succession of mendicant grotesques -- may momentarily wonder if he ever encounters anything admirable on his journeys at all.
But his Sunrise with Seamonsters gives us a rather different Theroux. These 50 short essays and articles, written between 1964 and 1984, include travel pieces, interviews, autobiographical sketches and literary appreciation, often fused together. The monsters are still here, of course, but kept decently in place. What emerges is a kindlier, more celebratory writer -- his delight in photographs, in boating, in maps; his love of family and literature. The needle eye and mind are still alert, but his (often scathing) book reviews are omitted in favour of studies of favorite authors, and several of his autobiographical pieces are revealing.
"There was only one arrangement of this book that made any sense," he writes in his introduction. "Set out chronologically these pieces seemed to me to form a narrative . . . " This is true, although the narrative is full of time-warps. His earliest essays -- descriptions of Africa which he now finds "a little forced and clumsy" -- are tinged with a romanticism, a striving for poetic effect, which he later eliminates. His autobiographical "The Killing of Hastings Banda" already shows him in command of a black-humored scenario which sees him thrown out of his Peace Corps teaching job in Malawi for unwitting involvement in a blunderous coup.
After his time in Africa, his articles mingle a deepening taste in literature with reflections on travel and with a few telling personal memoirs. The illuminations of his childhood (essays on "Being a Man" and "Traveling Home: High School Reunion") were not written in the frailty of adolescence or young manhood, but in his successful maturity. From this bastion he attacks machismo with the virulence of somebody hurt, during more vulnerable years, by the sheer crassness of the high school masculine ethic. "I have always disliked being a man. The whole idea of manhood in America is pitiful, in my opinion . . . Just as high school basketball teaches you how to be a poor loser, the manly attitude towards sports seems to be little more than a recipe for creating bad marriages, social misfits, moral degenerates, sadists, latent rapists and just plain louts." The same anger lingers behind his essays on Hemingway and on the failed sensibilities of whites in Africa, in "Tarzan Is an Expatriate."
MOST OF the writers he loves are conversely humane, skeptical, intelligent. His tributes to V.S. Pritchett, Henry James and V.S. Naipaul contain generous critical praise: precise and imaginative. There is an affectionate memoir of S.J. Perelman, an appreciation of Joyce Cary, and a lovely essay on Graham Greene's shadowy (to Greene) female traveling companion during his African Journey Without Maps.
Sunrise with Seamonsters is uneven -- but what such anthology isn't? -- partly because these pieces were responses to editorial commissions. But even when an article does little more than assemble some loosely related ideas, Theroux papers over the cracks so beguilingly, and the ideas are so pungent, that it scarcely seems to matter. Incidental felicities include a swinging attack on patronage ("When patronage is extensive, who indeed needs readers?"), an arresting study of the Exotic, and a discourse on the trials of writing, which is bitterly familiar.
Curiously, the weakest pieces of this mosaic are those about travel, especially train journeys. His accounts of train-hopping to Chittagong, or wanderings in Corsica or Burma, are fragmented and slight, better suited to absorption into the picaresque expansiveness of a travel book. His account of the London-Paris train-ferry is the soggiest patch in the book, and his overview "Stranger on a Train" takes too long to say rather little. In his chapter on Afghanistan (dropped from The Great Railway Bazaar), he dismisses "the Afghans" (a meaningless ethnic label, anyway) as "lazy, idle and violent," after spending only a few days in their country, mostly with hippies. This is precisely the kind of Tarzan expatriate attitude which he condemned as a younger man in Africa.
On the whole it is Paul Theroux's rootedness, not his vagrancy, which he celebrates most strikingly in this rich and various collection. "I know it is a mistake to stay away from home too long," he wrote in Singapore in 1971, and that "home" is as much in books and thoughts as in England or among his exuberant extended family on Cape Cod.