A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
Alexander Theroux comes from a famous family. Brother to travel writer Paul Theroux and the actor Justin Theroux is his nephew. I first came upon Alexander Theroux in 99 Novels, by Anthony Burgess. It was an informal survey of the best novels in English since World War 2. Burgess praises the usual suspects (Pynchon, Faulkner, Mailer), but he also brought up some otherwise unknown authors. One of them was Alexander Theroux and his masterpiece Darconville’s Cat.
But the first piece of prose fiction Theroux wrote was Three Wogs, published in 1972. Wog is a racial slur used by the British. As the back cover explains, “It is used to denigrate people of color — East Indians, Jamaicans, Africans — and, can under duress, be extended to include Asians, Irishmen, Italians, and indeed all people of perceptibly foreign habits or appearance.” Wog is similar to the word “bloody” in that it doesn’t translate into American English. (Wop is close, but by now it would be considered archaic or obsolete.) In Three Wogs, Theroux regales the reader with three tales of racists who get their comeuppance. (Since this is a literary essay and not a book review, I will disregard spoilers. Even though the title sounds distasteful, I would highly recommend reading Three Wogs. It is the perfect antidote to the dismal headlines in our orange-hued, tiny-fingered vulgar age.)
With geometric precision, Theroux tells three stories, each with three parts. All focus on a WASPy Brit and his or her “wog” antagonist. The first story focuses on a slow burn battle of wills between Mrs. Proby and her downstairs neighbor, Yunnum Fun. The second story deals with Harold Harefoot, a young Brit who works on the graveyard shift cleaning doubledecker buses and Dilip, a Jain from India waiting at the train station. The third story pairs Rev. Which Therefore, a deeply racist and deeply closeted Episcopal preacher having to officiate the marriage of Cyril, a black African singer for whom Which has an unrequited love (or lust). (Theroux has a Wodehousian penchant for funny names and comedic set-pieces.)
What make these short pieces transcend the strictures of comedy is Theroux’s verbal pyrotechnics, acidic satirical wit, and characterizations. Theroux is a devout Catholic and an unapologetic leftist. He resembles James May and he has had scrapes with the public, including charges of plagiarism and misogyny. The plagiarism accusations revolved around his two books of essays, The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors. The misogyny charges are harder to shake, but easier to justify. Let me explain. In Three Wogs the female characters do not come across as positive. Mrs. Proby is an unattractive, abrasive, combative, racist and anti-Semite. She comes across like a monstrous doppelganger to future-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the third story, Rev. Which Therefore’s mother is a withered hateful racist Protestant shrew. (Throughout his fiction, Theroux’s villains tend to be conservative and Protestant. Despite his progressive political leanings, he comes across like he still resents Martin Luther and that whole Reformation thing.)
Theroux’s genius shines through in his characterizations. While the WASPy Brits and “wogs” wallow in toxic antagonistic relationships, the stories expand on each character.
Case in point: We first meet Harold Harefoot and he comes across as a racist manchild with no impulse control. He gets into an argument with the Pakistani ice cream vendor. All in all, he is an unsympathetic idiot we shouldn’t bother caring about. But then Theroux provides us his back-story: Harold lives in Houndsditch. “It was all now a crumbling and smoke-grimed necropolis in boarded windows, mummified everywhere by old railings, stagnant air, and cobwebs, where draughty hallways reek with the smell of stale cabbage, Blakean children weep soot, and merchants patter with Mammon and make God evanescent.” He works “hosing down and scrubbing up the coaches and buses in a subterranean garage at Victoria Station, duties he performed with ill-camouflaged scorn and a minimum sense of art.” He spends his Sundays going to Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner, listening to racist tirades by local crackpots.
His antagonist is Dilip, a Jain, who is receiving a university education to study electrical circuitry. Like Harold, he is no mere caricature, although he speaks like Apu from The Simpsons. He endured his family’s destruction during the hellish days of the post-colonial Partition. The relentless suffering and hardship drew him towards the Jain faith, with its emphasis on not harming anyone. In the story, he waits in the train station while Harold chews his ear off.
One of the great set-pieces of Three Wogs is its Speaker’s Corner sequence. We listen to several crackpots and bigmouths spew forth a never-ending racist tirade. This is Alexander Theroux at his most brilliant. He describes the speaker’s blather as “a shotgun wedding between free speech and common sense.” Or put another way:
“But it was the speakers, the metal of Old England, who simply amazed, for it was singularly this vision-haunted (occasionally beer-irrigated) array of nobodies, filled with the arrogance of disenchanted insight, who, in the war between order and entropy, ran hand-over-hand high into their makeshift boxes, and, flying into diatribes and mighty gusts of Homeric wrath against God, Devil, or anything else that bent their wick, they cast – on a Sunday of rain, on a Sunday of snow – imitation pearls before genuine swine. Roland punched and fought to the front of the wide, shifting assembly.”
Or in contemporary parlance:
“Make America great again! Lock her up! Drain the swamp!”
Published in 1972, Three Wogs was written in 1970. The date is important. In 1968 Conservative MP Enoch Powell gave his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. The speech railed against non-white immigrants coming to England. “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” (To be fair, comparing Donald Trump to Enoch Powell would be uncharitable. The better parallel is with the producer-punching climate change denialist Jeremy Clarkson.) I imagine Theroux wrote Three Wogs in reaction to Enoch Powell’s speech and the festering racism in the UK following decolonization. The mighty Anglos and Saxons, long since heroes on the battlefields of Hastings and Agincourt, now looked like paranoid buffoons, afraid their daughters will marry a Pakistani or a British African. Alas, racism can’t be solved with a piece of literature and a “magic bullet” solution.
Theroux’s depictions of non-white cultures may come across as simplistic and a caricature, angering a reader looking at this through the lens of the politically correct. Political correctness is something more people need to be attuned to, especially in everyday interactions and in tolerating other cultures, beliefs, and so forth. As a means to interpret literature, political correctness is a narrow myopic lens. It shuts off interpretation in favor of hysterical reaction. Reacting isn’t the same thing as thinking.
Three Wogs is indeed racist, in the same way Blazing Saddles is racist. Racial slurs spatter the text, but words are neither good or bad. But people can be good or bad when using these words. Who is using the racial slurs? The Grand Wizard of the KKK and Richard Pryor will use the same words, but the intent will be different. Intention is everything. In Theroux’s case, he’s using the racist words against the racists. He also made both the racists and the non-white characters fully rounded individuals. This makes it more challenging to fit any specific character into a particular moral box. Life just isn’t simple. We’d like to think so, believing in conspiracy theories and such, when in fact we are each a unique product of time and circumstance. It is good to be politically correct, but, like anything else, don’t succumb to wearing PC blinders or using PC as a crutch. Besides, Three Wogs is a comic novel. Lighten up, laugh a little.
What makes this American Odd? That’s less easy to answer, since Theroux wrote this in London and the three stories take place entirely in London. (One could understand if someone mistook this book for a piece of British literature.) It’s oddness only becomes apparent when we see the rest of Theroux’s literary output. Unlike his future works — Darconville’s Cat, An Adultery, Laura Warholic — this book is short, takes place entirely in Britain, and has no “woman done him wrong” plot. But Alexander Theroux is also an oddball in American letters for other reasons. He has written biographies of Al Capp and Edward Gorey, along with a travelogue on Estonia. His latest endeavor is an 800-page doorstopper about the food aversions of famous people. Alexander Theroux is an odd, odd man and American literature is all the richer for it.
Coming next: Pack of Lies by Gilbert Sorrentino