Paul Theroux

updated 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1983 01:00AM

In Britain, that most written-about of countries, every church, every dell, almost every daffodil seems to have inspired a work of literature. Yet when Paul Theroux set out to chronicle his travels around the British coast 19 months ago, he was convinced that his book would be unprecedented. He would produce the sort of acerbic, intolerant, condescending travel book that Englishmen had written about virtually every land but their own. "No one had written about the British as natives of a foreign country who talk funny, have funny eating habits, wear funny clothes and have recreations and entertainments that seem strange," he explains. It was a challenge he could sink his teeth into.

Although he had lived as an American in England since 1971, Theroux realized that he knew little about Britain except that he no longer liked it. He had journeyed by train across Asia for his best-selling travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar and had traveled almost to the tip of South America for The Old Patagonian Express. Yet Bristol and Dundee, Blackpool and Bognor Regis were, to him, just names on a map. "This book grew out of a magazine article I did on the New York subways, when I realized that there are parts of New York that are more or less unknown," he says. "It should be possible to travel in a 'civilized' country in the same way people have in 'uncivilized' ones." He decided to start in the southeast of England and travel clockwise along Britain's coast. "The seaside belongs to everyone," he says. "And I had a direction—it wasn't a question of waking up and wondering where to go."

The result was The Kingdom by the Sea (Houghton Mifflin; $16.95), a travel book as contentious as a deposition in a divorce proceeding. Theroux, 42, has written 18 previous books, but he has never encountered critical hostility until now. British reviewers in particular objected to the gibes—such Theroux asides as, "If I had only one word to describe the expression of England's face I would have said: insulted." They also questioned the author's presumption that the coast is representative of Britain. "Can one fairly judge an apple by eating part of the peel and contemplating the flesh?" asked the Sunday Telegraph's reviewer.

Theroux says yes. "I was writing a book about the way people talk, their behavior and attitudes, and that's the same on the coast as it is elsewhere," he says. He allocated little time to cities like Liverpool because "cities are labyrinths—you get lost in them and they tend to hide things." He also avoided the picturesque sites that draw tourists. "It would be chloroform in print, a total soporific. I think a ruined factory is more interesting than a bustling cathedral." Instead, he slogged by foot and by rail through geriatric communities, holiday camps, tawdry resorts—and when he finally relented and spent a few days in a city, it was bomb-battered Belfast that he chose.

Surely there must be a hidden agenda behind such a gloomy itinerary, this dismal, forced march relieved only by the bleak beauty of the Scottish highlands and the aquatint colors of a few Welsh towns? "Over the last two years Paul has been growing fed up with England," observes Anne, 41, his English wife of 16 years. The taxes, the hypocrisy, the drabness, the xenophobia—his frustrations hung over him like a cloud. Making this journey was a way of clearing the air.

Before moving to England with Anne and their two young sons, Paul had been a teacher in Uganda and Singapore. Wanting to write full-time, he chose England because it was cheaper than America. He thought he would stay there 10 years. Twelve years have elapsed, and the commercial success of his books would now permit him to live well anywhere, but he feels obligated to linger until his sons graduate from their elite English boarding school. The Theroux family lives on a dowdy street in South London, in a comfortable but unfashionable four-story town house that is distinguished by its scrubbed brown brick and fresh white trim. "If we thought we were going to be in England for the rest of our lives, I suppose we might think of moving," Anne admits. "But especially for the past few years, Paul has thought we would wind up in America."

Not a man who delays his gratifications needlessly, Paul spends as much time as possible on Cape Cod, where he is renovating a contemporary house on a five-acre hilltop overlooking the sea. By design, he carries no luggage. "I have two of everything," he says. "I can go there with just my passport and resume my life." Because the boys are in school and Anne works as a BBC radio producer, he frequently goes there alone. "I still have a sense of excitement at going to the States," he says. "Often, coming back to England, I have a sense of returning to school. On the plane there's a voice saying, 'Wipe that smile off your face. You're almost in England.' " His time in London has been whittled down to less than a third of the year.

"I think the way I live is fairly selfish," he says, yet the Theroux marriage has withstood his absences. "I've gotten used to it," says Anne. "I sometimes wonder how people manage with their husbands around 52 weeks of the year. I suppose the difficult thing is when he comes back and both of us have to readjust." Paul seems to agree. "You can't go off for months at a time and expect everything to be the same and everyone to be waiting for you when you get back," he says. His departures give Anne the chance to see friends and go to the theater. When he is in London, they usually just stay at home. Paul can be charming, but he is by no means gregarious. His favorite recreation is rowing; its appeal to him is based on its solitude. "I don't consider that I have any close friends," he says. "If you spend most of your time writing and thinking about things, that's very satisfying, but at the end of the day you don't have much time for people."

With Paul, work always comes first. Keeping a 9-to-5 schedule, he turns out a book a year, along with dozens of reviews and articles. He is driven by a twin-engined ambition, a craving for both commercial rewards and posterity's laurels. Although best known as a travel writer, he regards himself primarily as a novelist. Witty and detached, his fiction is typically set in places he has lived in or visited—Saint Jack in Singapore, Girls at Play in East Africa, The Family Arsenal in seedy South London. (His 1982 novel, The Mosquito Coast, will soon be made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson.) Theroux alternates between fiction and nonfiction, as a farmer rotates his fields between corn and alfalfa. "After a long period on a book, especially on a novel where it's all coming from inside him, he feels a need to get away," says Anne.

Theroux came by his literary ambitions at 14, as soon as he began to read seriously. But growing up in the working-class Boston suburb of Med-ford, Mass., the third of seven children born to a shoe-leather salesman and a former schoolteacher, he didn't realize he could make a living by writing. He thought he would become a doctor instead. "I knew the names of all the writers who were also doctors—Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, and so on," he recalls. His decision, in his senior year at the University of Massachusetts, to abandon thoughts of medicine in favor of a writing career might appear an act of lonely courage. Except that he was not alone.

For reasons obscure to everyone, including Paul and his family, the modest house in Medford nurtured sons of immodest accomplishments. The eldest, Eugene, is a leading U.S.-China trade specialist whose ex-wife, the essayist Phyllis, is another writing Theroux. Second son Alexander is the author of two erudite novels, Three Wogs and Darconville's Cat. Paul's younger brother, Joseph, who lives in American Samoa, has just published his first novel, Black Coconuts, Brown Magic, while the youngest, Peter, is working in Saudi Arabia. The two Theroux daughters, Ann-Marie and Mary, respectively a part-time teacher and a nurse, have followed more conventional paths.

Paul left his hometown as soon as he could. "I didn't think I would succeed at being a citizen of Medford," he says. "The sort of things I was good at weren't recognized as being important. I didn't take the society very seriously, and I never saw anything I wanted there." After graduating from college, he taught in Italy for a year and then joined the Peace Corps, which sent him to the East African state of Malawi. "I literally didn't know where it was," he says. Soon he got to know it quite well, learning the Chinyanja language and making new friends. When one of them, a political dissident, was forced into exile in Uganda, he asked Theroux to bring him some left-behind possessions and to carry a few messages back to Malawi. Theroux was happy to comply.

Two months later Theroux was summoned to the office of the U.S. Ambassador. The messages he had carried from Uganda, he now learned, were conspiratorial notes for a coup attempt that had been crushed by the president of Malawi that morning. Two hours later Theroux was on a plane out of the country. "The Peace Corps deducted the plane fare from what I had earned," he says. "I was left with $200. I was innocent. I had been doing what the Peace Corps told us to do, which was, 'Get to know the people, speak the language, get involved.' "

Fearing that if he stayed in the United States he would be drafted to serve in Vietnam, Theroux prevailed on his friends in Uganda to find him a teaching position at Makerere University in Kampala. There he met and married Anne Castle, a British graduate student. As tensions rose in Uganda—first a coup, then riots—Paul began to feel "very conspicuous, very white," he says. "I felt that for them I was just a white man, and it annoyed me to think that after five years in Africa, that was all I amounted to."

Soon afterward he moved on to Singapore, and three years later he was living in London, rid of the albatross of having to teach. "I have loathed every job I ever had," he says. "And I don't think I was very popular, because I always resented the intrusion it made on my time. I could have given up teaching years before I did. If you publish a book every year, you make a living. I didn't realize that."

His security was assured in 1975 with the critical and commercial bonanza of The Great Railway Bazaar. The book's success amazed him; he had written it for very practical reasons. "I had a duty to my family and at the same time a strong sense of irresponsibility, a need to get away," he says. "The only way I could fit those two things together was to write a travel book." Theroux doesn't wallow in possessions (a red Rover is his chief indulgence), but he relishes his prosperity. "I don't know how he would have coped if he had not been commercially successful," says Anne. "He hasn't ever set out to write a best-seller, and he hasn't got expensive tastes. I just think that to want to make a lot of money is a very American trait."

An expatriate all his adult life, Theroux still considers himself thoroughly American. Yet during his years abroad, his accent has shifted from a Massachusetts twang toward an Oxbridge purr—toward it but never arriving, so that in both England and America he sounds slightly foreign. "I always felt my accent hadn't changed, but it obviously has," he admits. "When I went back to my high school reunion in 1979, I remember some people saying, 'Why are you talking like that? Who do you think you are?' I didn't have a quick reply." The detachment that began in boyhood, with the recognition that Medford was not for him, has been broadened and sharpened during his self-imposed exile. "One thing you get from living in foreign countries is the realization that you really can't join in and it doesn't matter," he says. "My life is a paragon of noninvolvement." On a train or off, Theroux is a traveler. He watches, he remembers, he records, he moves on.

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