Tough Poets Press, Nov 2022
he latest in Tough Poets Press’s heroic unleashing of a lifetime’s worth of unpublished manuscripts finds Cape Cod’s premier sesquipedalian in typically uncompromising form with a new collection that encapsulates the least appealing elements of his maximalist style.
Opening story ‘Rolf Vowels’ presents an uproarious caricature of a Cockernee villain—a racist, homophobic thug with an encyclopaedic command of street slang and a voice that is wildly inconsistent—one moment he’s using American terms (“freak crazy”), the next he’s using obscure words for cunnilingus (“gamahuching”), the next he’s coining portmanteau insults (“lunchbuckets”, “fudgemonkey”). In far-right Britain, where racist rhetoric is spewed frequently from politicians’ mouths, the onslaught of hate speech from this little shit sticks awkwardly in one’s craw, likewise the excruciating path to redemption via Jesus that concludes the tale.
‘The Ratmansky Diamonds’ is flat-out antisemitic and at no risk of being misunderstood as satire, un-PC comedy, or anything approximating humorous. The story concerns a wealthy Jewish couple named Ratmansky (rat man—tee-hee!) besotted with precious diamonds, who secrete their spoils on a farm in bottles of garlic paste before fleeing to America at the start of the Second World War. While in America, they become incredibly fat, feeding their rapacious Jewish appetites with tucker and moolah (of course), all the while stressing over the safety of their prized minerals in war-torn France. An acrobatically kind reader of this abomination might argue Theroux is intentionally mining antisemitic stereotypes to create a wildly off-colour lark that wields the most outrageous and offensive tropes for the shock LOLs. Either Theroux is tone-deaf to the cultural sensitivity of a Christian man revelling in antisemitic tropes, or he’s merely interested in tickling his own funny bone—and there’s no denying a wild time was had writing these absurd caricatures and making them the fools of the piece—with no subtlety or knowing winks to hidden intentions behind the story. This is a catastrophically tin-eared misfire that honks of the writer’s weird unchecked bigotry and lack of any editor politely beseeching him to reconsidering letting this carbuncle ever leave the bottom drawer. (Later in the collection, Theroux address and discusses antisemitism, making the purpose behind this oddity more baffling.)
Although accusations of misogyny are routinely lobbed at Theroux, the female character skewered in ‘An Interview with the Poet Cora Wheatears’ is a worthy hate-sponge—an arch, absurdly condescending lady poet who patronises and corrects everyone with whom she comes into contact, a vintage Dickensian grotesque who dismisses Marianne Moore as “cuckoo”, Ezra Pound as “twaddle”, and categorises John Ashbery, Stanley Kunitz and Jorie Graham as “comb jellies—lower than ctenophores.” Successfully managing to plant trivia on poets such as Wallace Stevens into the story in a way that is unbothersome and woven into the comedic tapestry of the tale, this is a classic character portrait-cum-assassination in the manner of ‘A Wordstress in Williamsburg’ from Early Stories, where Theroux perfected this form.
As the collection continues, Theroux struggles to suppress the part of him that is perpetually perched over an encyclopaedia, beaverishly hunting for novel factoids and even more beaverishly eager to share those factoids to anyone who will listen. ‘The Corot Lecture’ is a lecture on French landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camile Corot with fictional baubles included where the lecturer admonishes his students and alludes to his divorce—flimsy contrivances to pass this lecture off as a legit story. (The lecture itself is typically erudite and interesting—should have been plopped in a trivia volume, though). Similarly, ‘Revelation Hall’ features a young girl oppressed by her religious tyrant of a father who retreats into a private realm of reading and factoid-hunting, allowing Theroux to blitz the pages with random trivia, slowing down and strangling the momentum of the fairly bleak and unremitting story which comes to an abrupt end when he runs out of ways to crowbar in the nous. As one of the few admirers of his trivia volumes (even superfan Steven Moore who wrote A Fan’s Notes has little patience for those) Einstein’s Beets or The Grammar of Rock et al, keeping the two forms separate would make for a less irritating reading experience, especially when the stories in this monstrous volume average over sixty to seventy pages each.
‘The Brawn of Diggory Priest’ retells the early days of the Mayflower settlers—a more narratively appealing way in which Theroux imparts learning into the fabric of a historical yarn. ‘Envenoming Junior’ is the collection’s stand-alone WTAF moment, an acerbic rant in which thinly veiled versions of his long-loathed brother Paul Theroux and nephew Marcel Theroux are savaged in an epic litany of beef and qualm, an exhausting roster of everything that has upset Theroux about the other Theroux over the years, leaving him the most isolated of the Theroux dynasty. As a sustained piece of fictional familial evisceration, the story is pretty impressive in its unburdening of grievance, and deserves some kudos for the audacity of its assault, but the tone of the tale is much too bitter and arrogant to scale any artistic heights, and represents the worst of this tendency toward unfiltered spleen-venting that is funnier in other works.
Limping onward through the volume, this reader eventually fled in sheer exasperation. ‘Madonna Pica’, a story about teens pranking in a seminary has some of the most subpar prose on a sentence level in the collection, forcing me to bail early and skip ‘The Missing Angel’ and ‘The Nemesis of Jawdat Dub’, stories that at a glance repeat this tired formula of outlining a character solely for the purposes of flaunting erudition. The final two shorter stories ‘Acknowledgments’ and ‘A Note on the Type’ are whimsical canapés lighter in tone, where Theroux flexes his lexical bicep in brief. While this collection is disappointing and the poorest of the three short fiction reissues from Tough Poets Press, it’s worth reiterating the breadth of Theroux’s knowledge, and the power of his prose style where the possibilities of language are boldly exploited as by no other writer out there today. As a prose artist, Theroux crafts stories that are passionately in love with words and their potential to thrill and excite the reader. Alas, his previous peaks of prose mastery mean these lesser forays stick out in a canon of uniformly astonishing work, and so are deserving of the serial whipping that this reviewer has performed—entirely out of love and admiration.
For those eager to explore Theroux’s fictive world beyond the novels, I’d recommend Early Stories as the most essential of his story collections.
M.J. Nicholls is the author of the novels A Postmodern Belch (2012), The House of Writers (2016), The Quiddity of Delusion (2017), The 1002nd Book to Read Before You Die (2018), Scotland Before the Bomb (2019), Trimming England (2021), and Condemned to Cymru (2022). He lives in Glasgow.