‘What do your folks think about you becoming a Buddhist?’
‘I am looking for water,’ he said obstinately.
‘Are you in a monastery or what?’
‘Look, if there’s no water here, just tell me and I’ll go away.’
‘I’ve got some good friends in Baltimore,’ I said. ‘Ever get back there?’
‘You’re bothering me,’ said the monk.
‘Is that any way for a monk to talk?’
He was really angry then. He said, ‘I get asked these questions a hundred times a day!’
‘I’m just curious.’
‘There are no answers,’ he said, with mystifying glibness. ‘I’m looking for water.’
‘I’m dirty! I haven’t slept all night; I want to wash!’
‘I’ll show you where the water is if you answer me one more question,’ I said.
‘You’re a nosy bastard, just like the rest of them,’ said the Buddhist monk.
‘Second door on your right,’ I said. ‘Don’t drown.’
In The Great Railway Bazaar Paul Theroux makes clear that a good train compartment is preferable to any fixed lodging. In this scene, after wandering around Lahore and finding nothing to do, Theroux returns to his hotel:
I set off in search of a drink as soon as I got back to the hotel. It was still early, about ten o’clock, but I had not gone fifty yards when a thin man in striped pyjamas stepped from behind a tree. His eyes were prominent and lighted in the dusky triangle of his face.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘I get you a nice girl. Two hundred rupees. Good fucking.’ He said this with no more emotion than a man hawking razor blades.
‘Very young. You come with me. Good fucking.’
‘And good fucking to you,’ I said. ‘I’m looking for a drink.’
Paul Theroux’s first travel book The Great Railway Bazaar turns 40 this year, and rereading it is like meeting friends one hopes one will never meet again. Travel friends, like friendships made on a political campaign, are fleeting and slightly useful, and they can either cure or induce boredom within seconds. The benefit of these friendships is that they need not be maintained.
The early stars of the book are the threadbare Duffill, a mystery man bound for Istanbul, and the cheerful Molesworth, a man whose supreme talent is procuring wine. Theroux’s one constant companion is Little Dorrit, and he is constantly kept from Dorrit by passing sights and present smells–there are many unwashed hippies on his trains.
Theroux offers deadpan commentary on the towns and trades visible from his window, and he is best when describing the nameless intruders, whether they are a boy who cries whenever his flirtatious mother gets heated, or a silent Turk who escapes his bratty children to smoke cigarettes alongside a reposed Theroux. Pressed travel on trains forces one to be civil to one’s neighbor, and perhaps it is that civility, forced or forced upon, that once made us better as people.
Instead of brooding about Malabo, his sudden escape, the theft of his radio by Simon, or about the treachery of the boy paddlers who had delivered him here to the village of teasing children and hostile bug-eyed boys, and the heat, the dirt, his hunger and thirst—instead of this, he thought only of the injustices he had suffered in his life.
The trickery of his wife, who had foisted that expensive phone on him and used it to pry into his privacies. And then, after more than thirty years, she had demanded the family house, his father’s house in the Lawrence Estates, forcing him into a condo in the old high school. And her repeated messages on his answering machine: “You shit.” Chicky demanding that he hand over her inheritance: “I want my cut now.” When he gave her the check he said, “I doubt that I’ll be seeing much of you from now on.”
As those bad memories coursed through his mind, keeping him awake, grinding his teeth, slighter ones intruded—hurts, insults, snubs. “Four eyes,” “Fairy,” “You suck,” at school. The guidance counselor saying, “Maybe your father will give you a job, because if not, you’re not going anywhere.” A woman in college English tittering because he’d mispronounced the word “posthumous.” One of his customers saying, “You’re rounder now,” meaning that he’d put on weight—and the man who said it was fat. The new salesman who’d gotten a salary advance (“My rent’s due”) saying, “You can take it out of my first paycheck,” but he never showed up to work again. Not villains, but deadbeats, mockers, smirkers. “You’re still working for a living?” Teachers in grade school who’d singled him out—“See me after school”—and all the women who’d rejected him, batting his hands away. The lies he’d been told now came back to him, little twisted evasions that remained unresolved and niggling at him. Like his father, he’d been a trusting soul. He believed “I’ll definitely come tomorrow” and “I’ll fix it” and “That’s the best price I can offer you.” The pretty clerk who blocked the employee toilet with her sanitary pad, then denied it. The shoddy batch of socks from China, the repeated telephone message on the answering machine of the men who owed him money, or a delivery, until he called and got “This number has been disconnected and is no longer in use.”
And there was his incriminating phone, the one he’d thrown into the Mystic River because it was full of compromising emails. The thought of those emails shamed him, those whispers, those confidences, flirting and foolish. He had betrayed himself with people he’d trusted with his inner thoughts, people to whom he had confided his love of Africa. “The best years of my life,” he’d said, and they’d responded, “Cannibals and communists” or “Human life means nothing there,” in an echo of doom-doom-doom, and he’d lectured them on their peculiar folkways and pieties. “I was in Malabo, on the Lower River . . .”
All of this, and more, all night.
from Chapter 18 of Paul Theroux’s The Lower River
Paul Theroux’s The Lower River (2012) is a terrific novel, made better by its uncharacteristic two-fold start. Most novels have a singular start, an event or linked-events that set the main story in motion, but Theroux stuns a reader of The Lower River early with two distinct starts, one a familiar tale of marital infidelity, and the other unfamiliar, a story of a snake that wants to eat a woman.
Start 1: Deena buys a new smartphone for her husband Ellis Hock, which she activates for him, which downloads a thousand of Hock’s flirtatious emails with various women, emails he thought he had deleted for good. Hock is 62 and was never happier as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. He thinks he wants to get back to Africa, now that Deena has found him out. They go to marriage counseling, where the counselor quotes “Killing Me Softly” lyrics. Hock and Deena divorce amicably.
Start 2: Hock’s friend Jerry is dating this woman Teya, who has a pet python she sleeps with. Jerry pesters Hock for python advice as it has been acting weird; Hock was a researcher of snakes in Africa. Lately the python has been flattening itself aside Teya. Hock realizes it is measuring Teya in order to eat her. Jerry and Hock visit Teya with a guinea pig for the snake, and the snake, with its smell of muscle and urine, serves as Hock’s ‘petites madeleine’ and brings his Africa memories back in full force, setting the novel on its way.
I might have stopped reading The Lower River if that first start had been the only start. But Theroux is not your average novelist, and makes his best books go in unexpected ways.