Protocol and culture clash

D J Taylor on tales of exile
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The Independent Culture
Collected Stories by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20

The people in Paul Theroux's stories - the fruit of a quarter- century's magazine appearances and four full-length collections - tend to be exiles, both real and potential: American academics vacationing in London and hot in pursuit of the local literary fauna; Malaysians avid for a future beyond the gin-shop and the mah jong board. A good half of the 60 or so pieces here are conducted by Theroux's favourite raisonneur, the American diplomat: at first spotted in Uganda and the Far East, finally come to rest in London, and in each of these environments up against the eternal expat's problems of protocol and culture clash.

With their wry, featureless narrators and their focus on dusty little clubs set in the shadow of the rubber plantations, the Eastern stories carry strong whiffs of Maugham. Their patterns, too, are strongly reminiscent of Maugham's trademark procedurals: the cool, impartial narration always tugging the reader on, the constant ironical garnishes, the sharp final twist irrevocably shifting the alignment of the cast. In "Loser Wins", a husband accommodates his wife's chronic forgetfulness with a humorous and resented mock-sympathy. It comes as no surprise when, in the midst of a jungle excursion marked by lost maps, torches and leech repellent, she manages fatally to mislay this over-tolerant companion.

The English pieces follow a still more rigid compass. The titles --"Exile", "The English Adventure" - tell their own story. In "World's End" a kite becomes a symbol of an expiring marriage. In "Neighbours", the American diplomat inhabits a flat next to a meek but friendly civil servant. Complaints about a presumed second neighbour - a mohawk biker occasionally seen disappearing down the stairs in the small hours - are met with even greater diffidence. When the civil servant moves out, an unexpected silence falls upon the block.

This inability to leave anything open-ended comes across most strongly in a story called "Hayseed", set in a fly-blown town in the Mid-West. A big-talking revenant and the stolid owner of the local gas-station play pool and drink vodka, while the latter drops allusive hints (Theroux's dialogue is one of his enduring strengths) about a disintegrating relationship with his wife. The last sentence revelation of her suicide seems superfluous - dragging down a piece that would have been better left suspended in the ether.

Significantly, Theroux is much better at crisp little shards of determinism. In "Reggie Woo", the narrator tracks the career of a Malay actor whose failure sends him back to the tables of his father's bar: "I left before he caught sight of me and went back to the club, crossing the road with that sinking feeling you get at an unguarded boundary or a national frontier." The stories assembled here are full of these boundaries; an air of artificiality hangs over some of the journeys back and forth.