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Sunday, January 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
Theroux casts a wide net with 'The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro'

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times book critic

Detail from a street scene in Sicily, the location of the title story in Paul Theroux's latest collection.
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"The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro and Other Stories" can be taken as the latest collection of Paul Theroux's short fiction. Or it can just as aptly be viewed as a Theroux sampler, covering his full range as a writer in terms of tone and time and place.

Theroux's Africa, his Hawaii, his Europe ... they're all here, along with his blue-collar Boston suburbia. Andre Parent, the protagonist of his novel "My Secret History," makes an encore appearance in a suite of four stories set in 1950s Medford, Mass. (where Theroux grew up). In the book's title story, set in 1962 Sicily, a 21-year-old Theroux-like wanderer has a bizarre and torrid encounter with an old, capricious Europe. In "An African Story," an older Theroux evokes the career and sad fate of a little-known Afrikaner writer (Theroux's own marvelous invention) in post-apartheid South Africa. And the book closes with a contemporary tale, "Disheveled Nymphs," about a rich man living in a wary state of isolation on Oahu's North Shore (where Theroux now lives part-time).

I don't mean to suggest each tale is autobiographical: Some may be so, some can't possibly be. But each story here draws inspiration from places Theroux knows and has written about before.

You also get every possible Paul Theroux here, in terms of genre and technique. The Medford stories offer Theroux the neo-realist. "An African Story" serves up Theroux the metafictionist, writing stories about stories. "Disheveled Nymphs" borders on folktale fantasy (with a Las Vegas twist). And "The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro" itself is a psychosexual parable along the lines of "Half Moon Street" and "Chicago Loop," both tales that come from Theroux's shadow side.

"The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro and Other Stories"

by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, $25
The title story is as overtly sexual as anything Theroux has ever written. Its explicitness results in a line or two of purple prose, but the carnal tensions and power-plays are otherwise exquisitely calibrated as footloose American narrator Gil Mariner finds himself lured into an odd sexual proposition at a Sicilian hotel, the Palazzo d'Oro.

There, Haroun, a gay cosmopolitan Iraqi doctor, is terribly concerned about the state of mind of his patient/companion, a German countess who appears to be at least a decade or two older than Gil. Haroun will happily foot the young American's hotel bill, he says, if only Gil will make an effort to appreciate the countess' generosities and sensitivities.

What seems at first to be merely a kinky love story about an opportunistic young man half-willingly ensnared by an older woman who's domineering by day and masochistic by night soon expands into something more: an almost supernatural tale of carnal encounters repeated, in a cycle, over decades, perhaps even centuries.

This is a story, too, of envy — not just envy of money and possessions but of other people's lives, lives that seem more fully realized than one's own. And of course it's a tale of how youth views age and vice versa. In both the fever of its erotic maneuverings and the brazen artifice of its narrative structure, "Stranger" is a beguilingly perverse piece of work.

The suite of stories set in Medford has more to do with innocence — which isn't to say that the pre-teen boys depicted in them aren't sex-obsessed. The difference is: They don't know what they're talking about.

Theroux's ear for Boston blue-collar juvenile lingo, with its stream of ethnic jokes and abuses, is right on the mark. So is his description of landscape and weather, especially the messy way New England winter turns to New England spring: "The woods looked littered and untidy with the snow scraps, with driblets of ice from the recent rain in the grooved bark and boles of trees. ... Even so, spring was swelling, pushing from beneath, like the claws of skunk cabbage rising from the mud, and small dark buds on bush twigs, the knobs of bulbs and plants like fists thrusting up through softened soil, and the first shoots, white as noodles."

The longest of these Medford stories, "Scouting for Boys," is a tale of sexual abuse and attempted revenge that's as contemporary as the latest Catholic Church scandal. But there's more going on here than church bashing. Theroux is closely attuned to the way young boys enter a secret world hidden from their parents' sight: a world where almost anything forbidden — girls, guns, cigarettes — is of all-consuming interest. "In the woods we were conscienceless creatures," his young narrator observes, "like the other live things that lurked among the trees." With its close attention to period detail and its unrelenting, nervous-making suspense (thanks to those guns), "Scouting for Boys" feels like a minor masterpiece.

"An African Story" is just as impressive. Theroux, in conjuring up the stories of imaginary Afrikaner writer Lourens Prinsloo, is astonishingly resourceful. And the story Theroux tells about Prinsloo himself — who, suffering writer's block, foolishly starts living the sort of fantastical tale he usually just writes — is a strange and cautionary one.

"Disheveled Nymphs," which closes the book, again blends daylight reality with a touch of the uncanny. Its wealthy protagonist, preening over his houseful of possessions in Hawaii, finds he feels oddly dispossessed of them whenever his housekeepers, a mother-and-daughter team, turn up to clean the place. Becoming obsessed with the women, he follows them to Las Vegas on one of their bi-annual gambling vacations — and there finds them transformed into creatures he hardly recognizes. Complications, needless to say, ensue.

This collection, while reminding us what a wide net Theroux casts out across the world in order to reel in his tales, also confirms something more basic: that Theroux, especially in the shorter format of the novella, is a remarkable storyteller. Fans of his travel writing are sometimes taken aback by the subjects he takes on in his fiction. But just start reading any of the stories here, and I doubt you'll be able to stop turning the pages.

Michael Upchurch:


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