The Back of Beyond
An Interview with Alexander Theroux
author portrait courtesy of Fantagraphics
In Estonia, as Alexander Theroux observes, post offices sell shampoo, dish detergent, and sanitary pads, used-book stores pencil in their prices at the back of books, fisherman play pan-pipes to attract fish, and doors always swing out. Theroux, the author of four novels, including Darconville’s Cat (Doubleday, 1981) and Laura Warholic (Fantagraphics, 2007), went to Estonia to be with his wife, Sarah Son-Theroux, a plein air painter who had been awarded a Fulbright grant. He had planned to work on a novel, but found material instead for Estonia: A Ramble through the Periphery ( Fantagraphics, $24.99), a rich travelogue full of purposeful digressions and well-turned cameos, such as the woman who runs the box office at a small cinema, dispensing tickets and then inquiring where one would like to sit, “as if,” Theroux writes, “the place was Dallas Cowboys Stadium with 80,000 seats.” The high, the low, the literary, and the pop cultural mix freely in Theroux’s work; he follows a discussion of Heidegger’s On Time and Being with “Estonian cuisine is something of an oxymoron,” and then launches into a vivid, though not exactly tasty account of what he ate and saw eaten. Theroux, who has also published nonfiction books about the primary and secondary colors as well as the artists Edward Gorey and Al Capp, stacks such details atop historical references, myths, and recollected run-ins with shopkeepers and his fellow Americans. His book, finally, is as much a model of the country as a portrait of himself, the visiting outsider guided by an unquenchable curiosity and fine mind.
This interview was conducted by e-mail during the summer of 2012.
Paul Maliszewski: While walking in Estonia you wonder, “Why would a carrot be called a porgand? A pineapple an ananaas? A book a raamat? A cross a rist? A priest a papp?” Where does your love of language come from?
Alexander Theroux: I came to view the world as a word puzzle and, with no special aptitude I can name, fixed on the whys and wherefores of language from my earliest days. Song lyrics. Signs. The stories read in first and second grades. My parents almost always read to us at bedtime. Poems by Whittier. Scenes from Oliver Twist. Kidnapped. Treasure Island. The names alone intrigued me. Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney. The name Balfour sounded the knell of the romantic. Robinson Crusoe. I loved to hear read the exploits of Natty Bumppo. Authors had an aura of the godlike to me. The Latin prayers fascinated me as an altar boy. I can still recall carved names on buildings I saw from the MTA train when I was a youngster. Who can explain why? Words were magic to me. I once inadvisably glued my finger and thumb together at the Magoun Library in fourth grade trying to amuse a pretty little girl on whom I had a crush, and when the librarian came over angrily to inquire what the problem was and I pointed with a shrug and replied, “Mucilage”—a word that always made me laugh—she very coldly stated, “You are more to be pitied than censured.”
I have had the intricacies of automobile engines explained to me over a lifetime at least fifty times and cannot remember a thing about them. We remember and savor what we love. But I am still word-perfect, however, on exchanges I read in a Scrooge McDuck comic book, ca. 1948.
PM: You also mention an early interest in codes. Was that related to your love of words?
AT: I have six siblings. As kids, competitive, it was in our nature to want to keep things from each other, and codes were very effective in this matter—indeed, codes ciphers, are languages all to themselves, many languages. We covertly used as ink milk, lemons, transposed numbers, etc. Nothing Turing-like, mind you, nothing of genius. I had the luck to grow up in the age of radio mysteries, spy magazines, comic books, and even movies that reflected a fascination with the surreptitious, G-men, the FBI. Was it related to the paranoia over communism and hunting reds? No doubt. In my day, one could send away for Dick Tracy decoder rings, codebooks, spy kits, all sorts of Junior Secret Agent paraphernalia. I loved Charlie Chan movies. The Shadow. Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. One of my junior high school teachers, old Edward Finnegan, an actor, had a part in Walk East on Beacon, a classic red-scare movie. That gave me a thrill. I also got the chance to meet Herbert Philbrick, author of I Led 3 Lives, when I was about eleven or twelve and was agog shaking his hand. There was a lot of this kind of hoodoo. Remember poor Cardinal Mindszenty and how the Stalinists jailed and tortured him (or so the nuns told us)? I recall them recounting how Commie interrogators, in order to extract confessions of guilt, deviously placed a zinc pail over his head and drip-drip-dripped water on it to drive him mad!
I could have communicated with him by code!
We had nothing but time on our hands.
PM: You write about your anger over President’s Bush’s war in Iraq and the war on terror. How did it feel to travel then as an American? Did you think about how you would explain U.S. policies, if asked?
AT: I spent all of winter 2007 and much of spring 2008 living in Estonia, mainly in the city of Tartu. The U.S. presidential primaries were taking place at the time, highlighted by the wanton excesses and horrors of the Iraq war—which, unlike President Barack Obama, a loudly braying and double-chinned Hillary Clinton stubbornly and stupidly supported—particularly the tactics of torture. I remember very well of course back in 1965 and 1966 traveling through Europe when the Vietnam War was raging, and I had visited the Soviet Union as that war continued on and on. I have never found myself abroad in fact when the U.S. was not at war, and each one of those wars being waged—curiously enough—were wars that we had started. A quaint fact, don’t you think? I am not a mindless pacifist, by the way. It is simply that I have had to stand by for a lifetime and have to watch so many anti-Communist witch-hunts and listen to so much bullshit about them. In the 1960s, it was Communists we hated. We found them everywhere we looked, at home, under our beds, in our closets, in the State Department, at Harvard, in granny’s knitting drawer, and of course we wanted to slaughter them all in the name of God. In Iraq, it was “terrorists.” Careers depend on agitprop. It is old men and bitter cowards and loony ideologues—the ones who never fight—who love war. Eunuchs. Thank them for the high body counts of brave young men. They find it good for the economy, especially when other people do the fighting.
Draft-dodging is what chicken-hawks do best. Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh (this capon claimed he had a cyst on his fat ass), Newt Gingrich, former Attorney General John Ashcroft—he received seven deferments to teach business education at Southwest Missouri State—pompous Bill O’Reilly, Jeb Bush, hey, throw in John Wayne—they were all draft-dodgers. Not a single one of these mouth-breathing, cowardly, and meretricious buffoons fought for his country. All plumped for deferments. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani? Did not serve. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney? Did not serve in the military. (He served the Mormon Church on a thirty-month mission to France.) Former Senator Fred Thompson? Did not serve. Former President Ronald Reagan? Due to poor eyesight, he served in a noncombat role making movies for the Army in southern California during WWII. He later seems to have confused his role as an actor playing a tail gunner with the real thing. Did Rahm Emanuel serve? Yes, he did during the Gulf War 1991—in the Israeli Army. John Boehner did not serve, not a fucking second. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY? Not a minute! Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-MS? Avoided the draft. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ—did not serve. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair John Cornyn, R-TX—did not serve. Former Senate Republican Policy Committee Chair John Ensign, R-NV? Did not serve. Jack Kemp? Dan Quayle? Never served a day. Not an hour. Not an afternoon. These are the jackasses that cherish memorial services and love to salute and adore hearing “Taps.”George Allen, former Republican Senator from Virginia, a supporter of Nixon and the Vietnam War? Did not serve. Rick Santorum? Did not
serve. Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, Bill Frist, Dennis Hastert? Never served a day. These are the true bullshit-artists. Chris Wallace. Brit Hume. Sean Hannity. Roger Ailes. Bill Kristol. George Will. Neil Boortz. Michael Savage. Ted Nugent. Rep. Eric Cantor whose voting strategies reflect that he serves in Congress more for Israel than for the United States? Not a day. Please look it up, if you think I am either exaggerating or fabricating all of this. None of George W. Bush’s three brothers, Jeb, Marvin, or Neil served. None of George H. W. Bush’s three brothers, Jonathan J., William T., or Prescott S. Bush served. It would be a joke, if it were not so tragic or so venal or corrupt.
You inquire how I would explain the United States and its policies if asked. I would rather remove myself and weep for the injustice in life. I weep for the young brave dead soldiers, sacrificed for nothing.
Have I made my point?
PM: You seemed, though, to feel some obligation to explain the United States while you were there, a sense that you were like an ambassador.
AT: I tend to feel pronouncedly more patriotic when I am abroad and remember being furious in Paris in 1965 when I saw, from a bus, French students burning the American flag. I love this country, fully, not in moderation, but I cannot abide hypocrisy or jingoism, in any form or shape, or the weasels who perpetuate it—all those yahoos with their hyper-extended muscular nationalistic bullshit that down through history has started wars (making money, invariably the subtext, is always the goal), like cretinous Toby Keith doing that tough-guy bit, fist-faced Laura Ingraham’s repeated gasconade, “We are the greatest country in the world,” even the Olympic Games recently held in London where, broadcast by NBC and spearheaded by that parochial dwarf Bob Costas, all the foreign competition was studiously ignored while tight camera shots focused exclusively on the American athletes, so that in any given event no one had any idea who was competing. Did you ever hear any country’s national anthem played? Watch an athlete from another country stand on the podium to receive a medal? Not a single time, not once, not ever. Although the People’s Republic of China won nearly as many gold medals as the USA, I never saw a Chinese athlete getting his/her gold nor heard the anthem. I remember a volleyball match between Brazil and the USA in 1984 when the hatred was so intense that the players on both sides were giving each other the finger and spitting curses.
No, I never felt an obligation to explain this country to foreigners and never for a minute conceived myself as anything like an ambassador. Would anybody believe that this Congress of self-promoting boanthrops has been sitting on its hands for four years while the country is so badly failing? So lost? Partisanship is unpatriotic! The more I look around, the sadder I feel. I have always comforted myself that my first citizenship is to the City of God, in any case.
PM: Travelers, if they’re given to reflection, learn about the places they visit at the same time they see themselves laid bare. You write, “I may carry the idea of combat in my person, I truly hope I do not, but that evening seemed to point me toward a major direction.” Would you say more about this realization?
AT: I hate injustice, I despise inequity, I condemn hypocrisy, I abhor the lack of reason. When you find yourself in the 21st century having to argue with supposedly civilized human beings against the immorality of torture, what possible hope is there? To have a captured a human being—to have him helpless in your power acutely and self-consciously an American—and to be torturing him in a bestial way? Employing methods used by Torquemada in the 15th century? Surely that is something you are going to have to explain one day to your Maker, and there will be punishment for it. It will not be forgotten. It is a crime, a blasphemy against all decency. I have wondered about the karma of Ted Kennedy’s death by brain cancer. His father had Ted’s sister lobotomized, remember?
No, I want to forgive, not be combative. Compare the sweet and gentle forgiveness of the Vietnamese people with the savagery and vindictiveness of Israel with its never-ending cycle of retaliation The Law of Talion, a tooth for a tooth. Even as I write, Israel is seeking vengeance for the bus-bombing in Bulgaria, which they blame on Iran, when they themselves over the last year by subterfuge have sought out and killed many Iranian scientists in Iran! Israel has had full range operational nuclear weapons capability since 1967 and has signed but not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Their chemical weapons program, located at the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) in Ness Ziona, is never mentioned while the United States has thrown every last sanction at Iran that it possibly could. Anything off balance here?
It is the Vietnamese we should follow, not Israel.
PM: Do you find it hard to forgive?
AT: I have to admit, I do find it hard to forgive, although it depends on what we are talking about. I am sentimental and believe in, cherish, the idea of the abrupt turn of sudden forgiveness. I am not an injustice-collector, but often feel the need to spank, where spanking is required—forgive me, this is a confession—unfortunately I do remember slights and frankly the worst part of me always feels an obligation to retaliate, often with the somewhat megalomaniacal—and no doubt un-Christian—idea spoiling within me that my enemies deserve it!
PM: Does revenge fuel your writing?
AT: Revenge—I have written about this somewhere before—is the main subject of the modern novel, if it isn’t that of literature in general.
PM: Does revenge motivate the daily work of sitting at your desk and writing?
AT: I am not unaware that in his essay “Why I Write” George Orwell, among his list of the “four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose,” gave top-billing to the compulsion on a writer’s part “to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc.,” and he goes on to add as some sort of admonition in order to forestall any argument:
It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen—in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
I have to say that agree with him. Understand, I am not a Corsican. It is just that a satirist who delights in lampooning thrives on the need of what he sees to rectify, to revise, to skewer, to spank, to criticize, to correct. To me Orwell’s reference to “grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood” is more than anything a metaphor for the snools who plague you. I don’t know if I have ever written a book or poem in which at one point my pen was not dipped in acid.
PM: I love the details in the book and the allusions you muster. You write that Dante uses the verb “to smile” only once in the Inferno and pigs scratch themselves only with their right leg. There’s a real delight evident, as if, finally, you’ve found where a puzzle piece goes. What are you reading to come by these wonderful bits?
AT: Our house is filled with books. I guess I read passionately with a need to know and see the act of reading as an act of cognition and not simply a means of passing time. I like to think that we can somehow carry our knowledge with us into eternity. What astonishes me is that many reviewers blame me for the very kind of details you cite with admiration. Style—a high style of writing—is suspect in this world where less is considered more. I am often scolded for not writing like John Grisham and James Patterson, Maeve Binchy and Nora Roberts, whom Stephen King adores and praises to the sky. Book-publishing is all about politics. Agents, editors, which books will be puffed, which ignored, etc. Reviewing books is all about coziness. It is all of it a kind of caucus race. Women review women, Jewish writers review and praise Jewish writers, blacks review blacks, etc. Ours is the Age of Shoddy.
PM: You refer to Gravity’s Rainbow several times in your book. Can you say something of Thomas Pynchon’s importance to you?
AT: I love Pynchon’s sense of humor. I admire his invented names. I treasure his style. I also find him also in too many places pretentious, inaccessible, and even unreadable—I should say incomprehensible. One of the few boasts I believe I can make is that in my fiction I have never written a single line in a single book to obfuscate or to becloud. Pynchon’s wife was my agent, briefly, some years back. I gave her to sell the completed manuscript of my novel, Laura Warholic. Her singular and idle response to the book was that the matters of love and sex in the book were “ordinary”; she mailed it back to me without so much as a by-your-leave.
PM: What about Cortázar and Hopscotch?
AT: I love that novel. Now that is a book that is full of puzzles and codes. I wish I could have been a member of “The Serpent Club.” What amazes me is that Cortázar invariably received praise and admiration for the high style, lists, loquacity, boldness, ingenuity, and encyclopedic invention in his fiction, particularly that book, while the mediocre book-reviewers and invidious drabs to whom I am inevitably assigned by the New York Times—drab and hateful ink-stained failures, for the most part—only scowl at my work. I attribute this to envy and the ham-handed convention that nowadays seems to prevail everywhere in this business that asks, Who does he think he is?
PM: You wonder in Estonia about travel trends, writing, “Who would deny that taste is largely whim?” Do you think that’s true more broadly, of one’s taste in movies, say, or books?
AT: Tastes actually seem like whim but slowly grow out of the slants we acquire as we grow up and develop, who knows how or why? I have an acquaintance that is insanely right-wing—he is a bright, often congenial, talented guy—and whenever he is talking to me I am always secretly wondering: what terrible thing happened to him in the past? What are his deepest fears and neuroses and how did they take hold? What hatreds? How did he miss certain lessons?
I am constantly wondering how we form—are formed. Why does one sit in that part of a theater? Prefer unsalted potato chips? Avoid plaid? Loathe Los Angeles? Mistrust crowds? Believe that to look is to listen? Defend Dickens, no matter how sentimental he is? Remain completely indifferent to the Israeli occupation of Palestine?
PM: Your time in Estonia, in “the back of beyond,” seemed difficult. The culture was strange, the language ungraspable. By the end, you were wrestling with fundamental questions of existence and the spirit. Were you surprised to be led there by travel?
AT: I was completely turned off by the flat-footed uncongeniality of the society there, which frankly became worse under closer examination. But I couldn’t write there, not with any comfort, certainly. I also felt closed in, to a degree. As to the latter part of your question, I have been asking the fundamental questions of the spirit since I was six or seven years old—out of speculation not, by any means, because of any peculiar genius or precocity on my part—simply because those questions seemed always knocking on the doors of my mind and heart.
PM: The passages in the book about you sitting alone in empty churches, thinking, whiling away hours in prayer and reverie, were tremendously moving, ecstatic even. What is the relationship between religion and those fundamental questions? Has your faith helped you to face them or given you some framework for understanding?
AT: Can I confess that I am a practicing Christian. Orthodox and straightforward. No assertions here that I have special gifts or insights. I kneel to my Lord because I am such a failure. I pray, I hope, I look to the Gospels. Frankly, no fundamental question is not God-related, surely, and my faith, such as it is, is the bulwark of my life—writing life, human life, etc. Christ means more good book reviews. I stand with Marianne Moore who begins her poem, “Poetry” saying,
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
PM: In the last chapter, you express the hope that your book will share shelf space “with Lawrence’s Sardinia and Canetti’s Marrakesh and Theodore Cook’s Old Provence.” What do their books and yours have in common?
AT: The writers of those books, among others, savored the details, found the thisness in those places, were the ones, as W.H. Auden wrote in “Musee des Beaux Arts,” to notice some untidy spot:
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
Writers are the scouts of the world, the great noticers, the true map-makers. They are the prophets, as Percy Shelley and Horace point out—the vates. The unacknowledged legislators of the world. The visionaries. But I have no special prevision—give me no credit, it was obvious as the sun—although frankly I was savoring the details back there when at night my father was reading to us about the adventures of Billy Bones and the “black spot” and the Admiral Benbow Inn.
PM: The Grammar of Rock, your book about rock lyrics, is forthcoming from Fantagraphics. Are the best lyricists like your scouts of the world? And with what works of music writing would you have your Grammar share shelf space?
AT: My effort here is actually a book less about music than about language and literacy in regard to that. The best lyricists can compare with the best poets, although being less grave or as richly inspired they rarely if ever reach to the miraculous heights where, at their majestic solitude, Shakespeare or Milton, John Keats or Wallace Stevens live. Your last question is tough. Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite might be one. My book is comic to a degree, and frankly in a real sense an autobiography of what I have heard—have been hearing—all of my life. What the Sirens have sung. Or, better, when I have heard them what I have heard them sing . . .Tweet