Living on the Edge
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Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux (page 5)

Theroux, Slightly Foxed
Still, people get confused. Even his own wife and family.
     After an excerpt from My Other Life was published in the August, 1995 The New Yorker, Anne Castle Theroux (now Paul’s ex) wrote the magazine that “a very unpleasant character with my name said and did things that I have never said or done.” She was upset by the section called, “A. Burgess, Slightly Foxed,” in which the character Anne says of the late Anthony Burgess. “I must confess that I am not a fan." Anne Castle Theroux summed up, “I would have been delighted to have Burgess to dinner at my house, but, alas, it didn’t happen.”
     Of course it didn’t, and Anne, of all people, should have been more understanding, if not of Paul the husband, then of Paul the writer. Writers can’t be trusted.
     Theroux’s brother Alexander, also a novelist, suffered a similar lapse of understanding, attacking the book as Paul’s attempt “to seek absolution for 30 years of wayward, unfair bitchery and to come out — even if only for the space of a story — into the sunlight from cruel, carious shadows which, like a crab, he has so long chosen to inhabit.”

A Wonderful Young Man
It is certainly true that Paul can get under people’s skin — perhaps just as the ex-pats and others got under his skin. But he wasn’t always so disagreeable. Jane Campbell Beaven, (Staff: D.C., Ethiopia 1961–66) one of the great women of the early Peace Corps staff, accompanied Paul’s group out to Malawi and remembers him as “charming, thoughtful and engaging. A wonderful young man.”
     My own encounters with him support the latter impression. In the late 1980s, when I was putting together a collection of Peace Corps short fiction for an anthology, I wrote Paul asking permission to reprint a story (“White Lies”), and also requesting a letter of support for the book, something that I might show publishers.
     He wrote back immediately with the permission. Later he called and told me in detail how I should develop the book, what stories to choose, and how to focus the collection. He did stop at one point to say, “Well, I guess this is your book and you should do what you want.” Then he went back to giving me advice — all of it good.
     The book, alas, never did find a publisher. (However, Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers [Curbstone Press, 1999], which I edited, includes the same story by Theroux.)

I’ll Always be a PCV
In 1989, Tim Carroll (Nigeria 1964-66), the executive director of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, (the alumni group of RPCVs later renamed the National Peace Corps Association), organized the first of several Founder’s Day Dinners. It was held at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., on May 29th, JFK’s birth date, as a way of celebrating the Peace Corps and returned Volunteers.
     While a number of Washington’s glitterati were to attend, including Caroline Kennedy and the Shrivers (Maria Shriver served as MC), Tim Carroll wanted an RPCV speaker who was, as Carroll put it, “both famous and controversial, notable for achievement yet seared by the experience we would recognize as our own.”
     He decided on Theroux, who was then living in London, but agreed to participate.
Before the dinner, I found Theroux in the lobby of the Willard and introduced myself. He remembered me, asked about the book project, and we talked for a few minutes about what he was writing. At the time, I found his British accent and hauteur a bit off-putting, but writers are unconscious mimics and Theroux had spent most of his adult life among the British in Africa, Singapore, and England. His first wife was British. His kids were British. Of course, he would sound British. (He seems, however, not to love England. When asked several years ago by an interviewer what was the worst place he had ever been, Theroux replied, “South London on a rainy winter afternoon, preferably on a Saturday or Sunday. Everything, literally everything, is wet, gray and dismal. Your heart is in your boots. That’s definitely the pits. You simply want to shoot yourself.”)
     I kept popping questions at him, hoping that one or another might stir him into conversation, a little give-and-take. But he was monosyllabic, at best.
     Paul is well aware of his social failing. In the introduction to his collection of stories, he writes, “People who have no idea who they are talking to have told me that they love Paul Theroux’s stories; yet I can see they aren’t impressed with me.” After a few minutes of struggling to reach common ground, we were summoned to dinner.
     Theroux gave that night’s address. It was long and rambling and disorganized and made no reference to Malawi or the Peace Corps. He spoke with a pronounced British accent and mumbled a great deal. He lost the audience half way through his talk.
     But I remember clearly his closing comment, when his voice softened a little and he talked about hearing the novelist Leon Uris, in a reminiscent mood, say that whatever else had happened to him, he always thought of himself as a young man, a Marine. Theroux summed up by saying that whatever else he was, he would always think of himself as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
     It was a nice touch. A generous touch, considering that the Peace Corps had thrown him out and taken away all his readjustment money years before.
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