Ah, the fish-out-of-water tale. In A Stranger in the Earth
, debut novelist Marcel Theroux drops fresh-out-of-the-sticks Horace Littlefair into a rough-and-tumble London populated by all manner of dreamers, conspirators, and fakes. Once he's settled and gainfully employed, the eye-opening that Horace experiences constitutes the novel's comic arc. And his job at his uncle's newspaper, The South London Bugle
, is a great narrative device, setting up a series of humorous encounters with monomaniacs (and just plain maniacs) of various stripes. There's Trevor Diamond, the animal-rights activist devoted to the preservation of the urban fox. There's Horace's Scrabble-obsessed landlord, Mr. Narayan, who wins his games using words like rewoo
. In these and an abundance of other secondary characters, Theroux's craft shines. You can't sum up their relationships in single sentences without sounding like you're setting up a punch line: What do you get when you cross a politician with a lady of the evening? What does an animal-rights activist have to do with a gardening columnist? To Theroux's credit, the answer to both of these questions is: Quite a lot, actually.
What's lost in the shuffle of who-did-what-to-whom is Horace himself, who comes off more as a surrogate reader than a fully realized character. While those called up from central casting steal the show, he remains somewhat muted, more often a witness than a participant in the madness. His moments of self-reflection appropriately encounter this kind of sentiment:
And for all his conscientious interest in the world,
and the business of getting up and going to work each
day, he was still aware of a hollowness inside him
that he couldn't fill up with newsprint.
One of Theroux's great talents lies in the rubbish coming out of his characters' mouths. If you never thought it possible for anyone other than Austin Powers to utter "chap," "bloke," and "bird" within the space of a single paragraph, look no further than A Stranger in the Earth
, old boy. At times sounding like a Pygmalion
by way of Monty Python with a detour into Lewis Carroll's wonderland, these characters can't seem to shut up, and their voices are music to readers' ears. --Ryan Boudinot
From Publishers Weekly
A few weeks after his arrival in London, country-boy Horace Littlefair sheds his grandfather's tweeds for the synthetic accouterments of hip-hop style, but cannot shake the provincial integrity of his upbringing. An innocent youth from the village of Great Must, Horace blunders comically through Theroux's first novel: his failed efforts to join the chemical generation are matched only by his bungled attempts as a journalist at the South London Bugle, the newspaper owned by his striving, blow-hard great-uncle Derwent Boothby. After losing his first love interestAa lovely Pole named JanaAto the immigration authorities, and finding himself relegated to writing the Bugle's garden column, Horace accepts an assignment to profile one of London's centenariansAthe ancient Agnes KettleAand the plot heats up. Soon after Horace interviews her, Mrs. Kettle is visited by zealous Trevor Diamond, head of a one-man campaign to save the urban fox. Horace starts to write puff pieces about Trevor, and the two fall into an uneasy, malt-hazed collaboration. WhenAshades of Ian McEwan's recent Booker Prize novel, AmsterdamAMP Barnaby Colefax is caught with a prostitute, a conspiracy to cover it up drives Colefax and Diamond into each other's arms. Meanwhile, Horace plays Scrabble with his landlord, Mr. Narayan, agonizes over Narayan's wayward daughter Lakshmi and starts to fall for a smart, hard-boiled city girl. The quippy, English humor of this novel supplements its loose, picaresque style. As a satirist, Theroux is often very sharp; he is, however, sometimes a bit ham-handed, as when Horace's devastating hangover is followed, after a section break, by the old A.A. meeting standard, "My name is Richard and I'm an alcoholic." Still, Theroux's fun poking is genuinely appealing. He is deeply sympathetic to London's motley denizens, and is an ambitious architect of plot. (Aug.)
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