Living on the Edge
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Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux (page 4)
In, Up, and Out
Sent home from Africa, Theroux stayed at the Claridge Hotel in Washington, D.C., around the corner from the Peace Corps Headquarters. He was in and out of the Claridge in less than a week. Because he had been terminated early, the Peace Corps added to his misery by deducting his airfare from Africa to Washington from his readjustment allowance, leaving him with only $200 — not much, even in 1965.
     African friends, however, came to his rescue and got him a job at Makerere University in Uganda, where he was appointed director of the university center for adult studies in Kampala.
     By October, 1967, he was in trouble again, this time with the Ugandan government. He published an essay in Transition entitled, “Hating the Asians,” a report on the mounting prejudice directed at East Africa’s Indian population. The Uganda government protested and letters were written saying that there was no bigotry in Africa and that the Indians could have anything they wanted. Five years later, Idi Amin deported all of Uganda’s Asian population and confiscated their property. But by then Theroux had left Africa for the second time.
     That four-year contract at Makerere University, one of the best universities in Africa, was important to Theroux for two reasons. There he met and became friends with V.S. Naipaul, whose “close attention to my writing (often he would go over something I had written word by word) had a profound influence on me.” Also at Makerere he met Anne Castle, his future wife, who was a teacher at an upcountry secondary school in Kenya. The school, his wife, and several Peace Corps types are all characters in his second novel, Girls at Play.

Of Peace Corps Personalities and Others
Girls At Play was the second novel that Theroux based on his experiences in Africa. In this book B. J. Lebow, the first of Theroux’s Peace Corps characters, appears. “It’s sort of Jewish,” Lebow says of her name. “It used to be Lebowitz, I guess. You probably knew that, everybody does. But I’m no Jew. I went to Israel one summer. That cured me. What a bunch of boy scouts.”


Theroux on the jacket of Girls at Play, 1969

     Theroux would use this Peace Corps experience in a short story he has said is one of his favorites, “White Lies.” It was published in May, 1979 in Playboy and was included in a 40-year retrospective of Playboy fiction. Recalling the source of the story, Theroux writes (in Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers), “In Malawi, in 1964, as a Peace Corps teacher, I took a trip to the shore of Lake Malawi with some other volunteers. We were all fending for ourselves, cooking, washing, and so forth. One day I developed a strange skin condition — red bumps, pimple-like; and soon they were large and painful, erupting all over my back and shoulders. Each one held a maggot, which began as an egg laid on my shirt by a putzi fly. Using matches and tweezers my Peace Corps buddy, Bob Maccani, dug them out — Zikomo kwambiri, Bambo Bob. For years I wondered how I could use this unexpected malady, and then I came up with this story, which is still one of my favorites, and full of detail from my experience in Africa.”
     The short story involved a PCV (whom Theroux refers to only as a teacher) who brings home from the local bar every Saturday night an African girl, Ameena, who does his ironing before heading back into town.
     When the PCV takes up with the English headmaster’s daughter, home for the holidays from her Rhodesian secondary school, Ameena delivers a “present,” a shirt that, when he wears it, causes masses of tiny reddened patches, like fly bites, all over his body.
     The PCV thinks he has been cursed by Ameena because he abandoned her for the pretty English girl. The fly bites turn into maggots, “their ugly heads stuck out like beads,” Theroux writes. As the narrator holds a cigarette lighter near the bites to ease the maggots out of his roommate’s skin, Theroux sums up, “The danger lay in their breaking: if I pulled too hard some would be left in the boil to decay, and that, I said, would kill him.”
     The PCV leaves Africa at once, scarred by the experience, and the story’s narrator comments that the “life cycle [of the maggots] was the same as many others of their kind: they laid their eggs on laundry and these larvae hatched at body heat and burrowed into the skin to mature. Of course, laundry was always ironed — even drip-dry shirts — to kill them. Everyone who knew Africa knew that.” But not this PCV.
     Theroux also disliked the Washington Peace Corps staff. In the essay, “Reminiscence: Malawi,” which appeared in Making A Difference: The Peace Corps at Twenty-Five edited by Milton Viorst [NY: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1986], Theroux recalls, “I remembered all the official freeloaders who came out from Washington on so-called inspection tours, and how they tried to ingratiate themselves. ‘You’re doing wonderful work here. . . . It’s a great little country,’ they said; but for most of them it was merely an African safari. They hadn’t the slightest idea of what we were doing, and our revenge was to take them on long, bumpy rides through the bush.”
     Theroux especially disliked the embassy personnel, “all those whispering middle-aged aunties who couldn’t speak the language.” He had good reason in light of how he was treated by the U.S. Embassy.
     Reading his fiction and nonfiction, it is easy to see that Theroux responded best to individuals, not groups. While he might make a crudely provocative comment to a group of English settlers in a Malawi bar, (a comment like, “The Queen’s a whore,” as he passed her portrait hanging above the bottles of gin), he could also befriend an English neighbor, Sir Martin Roseveare, the principal of a teachers’ college. (Roseveare died in Malawi in 1985 at the age of 86; he had been knighted in 1946 for designing the fraud-proof ration book in wartime Britain.)
     During his own life in Africa, Theroux always aimed at becoming an insider, not an outsider. “After I lived awhile in a cozy bungalow with two servants,” He writes about his Peace Corps tour, “I moved into an African township, where I lived in a semi-slum, in a two-room hut — cold water, cracks in the walls, tin roof, music blasting all day from the other huts, shrieks, dogs, chickens. It was just the thing. The experience greatly shaped my life.” In another essay, he recalls, “In Malawi I saw my first hyena, smoked my first hashish, witnessed my first murder, caught my first case of gonorrhea.”

Theroux from his high school year book, Medford, Massachusetts, 1959

All Writers Lie
In 1979, Theroux turned his life into My Secret History, a novel that fictionalized his teenage years in Medford, Massachusetts; his Peace Corps years in Malawi; teaching in Uganda; his marriage to Anne; his friendship with V.S. Naipaul; life in Burma; and his journeys as a best-selling travel writer. And, from Medford to India, he lists the women he had relations with, and lived with, from the whores of Malawi to British shop girls to the woman he courted and married.
     Seven years later came My Other Life, which he claims is “the story of a life I could have lived had things been different — an imaginary memoir.” Of the two, Theroux says, “Anyone reading that book [My Secret History] and this one [My Other Life] would become totally confused about my life. Which is fine with me.”
     All writers lie. Fiction writers lie the most. And what writers write about is not really their own lives, even if that seems to be their subject. Most novels are much more interesting than any one person’s life.
     The reason we believe Theroux really did this, and did that, is because his life — in fiction and nonfiction — seems so alive on paper. This is his real writer’s gift. His ability to make his prose vivid, however, doesn’t make the stories true.
     What pulses through Theroux’s writing is an urgency: the language, the setting, the description, the narrative. One reads fast to keep up with his string of metaphors, deft descriptions, telling lines. It is as if he wants to get it all down, and get it down fast. Readers keep coming back to him because they know they’ll be surprised by his prose.
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