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Strange Landscapes

Paul Theroux took the stage: "I've been to Patagonia, but I've never been here."

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By Deanna Isaacs

You had to be desperate to venture out on a night as miserable as the one that brought Paul Theroux to Glenbrook South High School. The skies had opened and an unhealthy wind--too warm for the season--was whipping sheets of rain across the strip malls and subdivisions and corporate parks that populate that part of the northern Illinois floodplain. Cars maneuvered the flat, drenched roads like boats on a river, each taillight trailing a shimmering red ribbon of reflection in its wake. I pulled into the school's back parking lot and stepped out into a tiny, foot-soaking tributary. The wind caught my umbrella and flipped it. I shouldn't have come.

Is there any venue so depressing as a suburban high school? A pall falls over you as soon as you enter. The stifling, familiar halls reduce you in an instant to the trapped child you were. Here you are again, they say, and what to show for it? I followed a maze of them to the auditorium. The best seats, nearly the entire center-front section, had been cordoned off with masking tape. Reserved for patrons (and freeloaders like me) by some deluded official, they were nearly empty. Weather and the price--$60 for a series of four lectures, no single tickets--had conspired to depress attendance. The sparse crowd that did show up moved compliantly to seats in the rear. A woman in a purple suit read a perky introduction and Theroux took the stage. "I've been to Patagonia, but I've never been here," he said, peering out across a moat of empty, gold plush seats to his distant audience.

They peered back, keenly attentive. The protagonist of Theroux's new novel, My Other Life, is a man named Paul Theroux, a prolific writer of novels and travel books who, like the real Paul Theroux, grew up in New England, has two sons, lived in Africa and Singapore and London, and went through a wrenching divorce. Despite the author's explanations ("fantasy, the road not taken"), this coincidence had served to heighten interest in the man who stood before us. The audience felt they knew him in an intimate way--perhaps the most intimate way--and nothing he could say would convince them otherwise. They knew he had farted in the presence of the queen of England, for example; knew his cuffs had been tacked up with paper clips when he met her; knew she had stunned him with a kind word of personal advice. "You're in books, aren't you?" she had said. "Go back to books, then."

Theroux turned out to be not only taller than expected but taller than he should have been: too tall for his persona. He had a long, deadpan face, square-jawed and heavy-browed, with a wide slash of mouth, the kind of face you would carve into a pumpkin if you didn't want it to smile. One strand of thinning, dark brown hair drooped above his tortoise-rimmed glasses. The whole package suggested a sort of hulking, Waspy Woody Allen: incongruous but unremarkable. His clothes were too warm for the near-tropical night--itchy tweeds over heavy wools, and unfortunate manure-brown pants. When his jacket opened, you could see that his midsection had begun to get away from him.

He was just back from Africa with a satchel of proverbs. "If your face is ugly, learn to sing," he said, and "Lies return," and "Two large buttocks cannot avoid friction." The audience laughed, and he leaned forward, a hand planted firmly on each side of the podium. His voice was tinged with the accent of the longtime Anglophile, but he was amiable, willing to entertain, even self-deprecating. "If anything made me a writer, it was my sense of being marginal," he said. "I wasn't good at school and I wasn't a sportsman. Fiction allows us to live out our fantasy."

The room was damp with the vapor of a hundred dripping umbrellas. A huge autumn bouquet, a profusion of flaming yellows and reds, had been placed on the floor directly in front of the podium, and after a while it began to vie with Theroux for attention. The flowers were so large they might have been fake. My eye kept returning to them, probing, but it was impossible to tell. "Many times you go to a place and discover something about yourself," he was saying; and "All writing is a quest."

Then the woman in the purple suit was back at the edge of the stage, and Theroux was taking questions. Another woman quizzed him about a cruise he took years ago: "Do you remember the ship's academic?" No? Her grandfather. A boy with a man's voice said he had begun to write himself: "What is the process?" A photographer suggested Theroux's books might be improved with pictures.

"That's a comment, not a question," Theroux allowed himself, and: "The only true travel is when you go alone....The greatest benefit in travel is when you're having a very bad time....If you are a fulfilled and happy person, why should you ever want to be a writer?"

We moved to another room for the postlecture reception. There was the usual long buffet table with coffee and pastries, and a dozen round tables covered with white linen, surrounded by folding chairs. Theroux positioned himself at one of these for the last, most excruciating part of the evening's ritual, and the fans queued up--gawky kids and gray-haired men in ponytails and eager women. For the price of a book, they got an autograph and a moment's conversation. They wanted travel tips, writing advice, the secret of how to be him.

Too cheap to buy anything, I hovered at the pastry table, where I could observe his signing technique. If anyone lingered, he stood up to move them along, manipulative but still managing to look friendly, clasping his hands behind his back or across his belly for an avuncular final few words. I was pondering this, looking for signs of the wicked sensibility behind his books, when my mind's eye saw him break from his fans and head in my direction, apparently to get a sweet. I knew exactly what would happen next. As he hesitated over the petits fours, I would stumble for something to say. "You might try one of these," I would offer, extending my plate with a cherry-topped square on it for inspection. He would turn to me, waving a dismissive hand at the pastry, so close I could see the stubble on his cheek, the ice in his eyes.

"You're in papers, aren't you?" he would ask. "Waste of time, you know. Not a mirror and seldom a window, unless I do it. You really ought to find another line of work."

Startled, I would pull back, my miniature cake tumbling to the floor. As I bent to retrieve it his glance would fall on my soggy sneakers. "Pathetic shoes," he would hiss, and something else: "Don't even think of seducing me." Then he would turn on his heel and march back to his duties, his bald spot bobbing emphatically. "Get a large print book," I heard him say to the next person in line, and "Thanks so much for coming."

I left the room in a daze, following the oppressive halls to a door that looked like the one I had entered. When I went out into the equatorial night, I realized something was wrong. The hot wind was still breathing down my neck, but my car was nowhere in sight, and the place looked weirdly unfamiliar. I had somehow gotten to the front of the building, and stepped out in territory I had never been to before.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Paul Theroux by Robert Vavra.

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