BOOK REVIEW / A diner serving God: Millroy the Magician - Paul Theroux: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
PAUL THEROUX'S latest novel kicks off when Jilly Farina, a gamine 14-year-old whose narrow hips and urchin's hairstyle enable her to pass for a boy, turns up one Saturday morning at the Barnstaple County Fair. Here, in a sweaty marquee, surrounded by the dull-eyed Cape Cod proletariat, she first sets eyes on the legendary Millroy, who at this stage in his career is simply swallowing cutlasses and conjuring up chicken pies out of their raw materials. Inveigled on stage, invited to participate in the pageant of transformations and disappearances, Jilly is captivated. Informed by its impresario that 'I don't want to let you go. I've been waiting half my life for you', she resolves to quit a down-at-heel world of spiteful grandmothers and drunken fathers and set up as a sorcerer's apprentice.

But Millroy, it soon transpires, is no ordinary magician. The conjuring tricks, in fact, are only a means to an end, and the goal is a renewal of national purpose through diet. Predictably enough, this has a spiritual framework. Sustained by the Bible, here seen as a kind of superior recipe book, Millroy sets off on the path of the upwardly mobile chef evangelist. First step is a residency on a Boston children's TV programme, foreshortened by one of his teenage presenter's on-air fixation with bowel movements. There follows the unveiling of the 'Day One' philosophy of biblically sanctioned cuisine, a much-syndicated cable show, the opening of a chain of 'Day One Diners' in major US cities, and Millroy's elevation into a TV savant of the Jimmy Swaggart sort.

As a novel Millroy The Magician neatly blends two American obsessions - God and food - into a satirical whole. Inevitably, though, a work which so matter-of-factly embraces the numinous - Millroy's sorcery is such a stock response that it verges on the commonplace - and conveys that numinousness through the eyes of a child, is built on shaky foundations. The magic sits uncomfortably with what is otherwise a plausible enough saga of illusion (Millroy's) and delusion (his audience's). The denouement, too, is entirely predictable: Millroy is assailed by tabloid exposes of his private life - Jilly, presented throughout as his 'son' is assumed to be his catamite - and the empire begins to collapse.

Ultimately, Millroy and Jilly end up in Hawaii. Their final bliss ('His kisses pierced my body . . .') is a touch improbable in the light of 400 pages of apparent sexlessness. Undoubtedly the wide-eyed teenage narration, full of whopping obtrusions and stagey pieces of scene-setting, doesn't help, but what really seems to be wanting is not plausibility or confidence (this is an ambitious novel on an ambitious theme) but style. The best touches, oddly enough, are ventriloquial, the fragments of street-sharp, referential dialogue spoken by Millroy's teenage assistants in the diner. Thus, after Millroy has apparently pulled a rat from the mouth of a troublesome TV evangelist, the chorus is famously impressed:

'And he's, like, 'another rat for you, dude',' Shonella said.

'Big Guy is awesome. I'm, like, 'Go for it',' Berry said.

Daylon said, 'What it is down to is, this man is so righteous he can diss them all.'

This is both funny and sad, but as a tone it is never maintained through Millroy's ruminations about fibre or Jilly's gaucheries. Although Theroux contrives one or two more or less obvious biblical parallels - Millroy's last meal with his followers is a variation on the Last Supper, and in Hawaii he appears to raise a woman from the dead - I kept being reminded of H G Wells's great expose of shamanism, Tono-Bungay.

Millroy, however, falls some way short of being Uncle Ponderevo. And despite its humour and readability, Millroy The Magician lags a similar distance behind the terser, more condensed early period Theroux of The Family Arsenal and Saint Jack.