PERHAPS THE HARDEST and most dangerous thing a writer can do is honestly depict his or her family in print. After 50 years and dozens of published books — roughly 30 fiction titles and 17 travel narratives, but no memoirs — Paul Theroux has finally taken the plunge with Mother Land, a stunningly perceptive and wickedly funny autobiographical novel that will no doubt infuriate his family members and thrill his readers. It’s a book that’s been a decade in the making, one that Theroux couldn’t publish until his mother died two years ago, four days shy of her 104th birthday.
Theroux’s big career break came in 1975, with the publication of his seminal travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, which reinvented the travel narrative genre by focusing more on the people he met on his journey rather than the sights. Theroux returned from the journey to find that his wife had taken up with another man, but the book’s commercial success allowed him to buy a home on Cape Cod. A succession of highly acclaimed travel narratives followed, including The Old Patagonian Express, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Kingdom by the Sea, and The Happy Isles of Oceania.
Theroux is essentially a private man, and has long extolled the virtues of solo travel, preferably by land or sea. (He hasn’t gone soft with age, either, recently taking on arduous overland trips to Central Asia and Africa for his Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, and The Last Train to Zona Verde.) He reveals little about himself in his nonfiction, but readers get a stronger sense of who he is and what has influenced him through his novels, whose very titles are sometimes telling: My Other Life, My Secret History, et cetera. But even when he has given us revealing glimpses into his private life — as in the gripping account of his tumultuous friendship with V. S. Naipaul, Sir Vidia’s Shadow — he has largely steered clear of writing about his six siblings and his parents.
I’ve been a faithful Theroux reader for 25 years, and have long been frustrated by Theroux’s refusal to tell his own story. Theroux has said that he doesn’t intend to write a memoir because he doesn’t want to give critics the chance to review his life, a position that is shared by Jay Justus, the protagonist of his novel. The author insists that Jay isn’t a carbon copy of himself, but this beautifully crafted 509-page opus gives us plenty of insight into a large Catholic family on Cape Cod very much like Theroux’s, and furnishes us with an enjoyable opportunity to assess what’s fact and what’s fiction at each turn.
The focal point of Mother Land is, of course, Mother — a cold, manipulative shrew fond of making hideously thick pea soup and telling her brood that their failings are “their own goddamned fault.” Her shortcomings are infuriating and at times hilarious. She has the audacity to charge Jay when he spends too much time in her cottage one summer. “It’s the high season,” she explains. Mother brazenly plays favorites — Angela, a child she lost in birth is idealized — and demonstrates affection with her checkbook. A product of the Great Depression, her goal is to spend as little money as possible. But as Jay and Floyd, the two writers (and black sheep) in the family, discover after they break into her home and examine her checkbook, she showers cash on her favorites while stiffing the rest.
The meat of the book follows Jay as he returns to the Cape in his 60s after two failed marriages, at a time when his career as a novelist and travel writer is sputtering. Unlike Theroux — a successful author who owns homes in Hawaii and on the Cape — Jay’s books aren’t selling and he lives in a rented home near Mother and his siblings. But while there are differences between Theroux and his protagonist, some of the book’s richest material comes from areas where their paths convene. Theroux did, in fact, sneak off to Puerto Rico in 1961 with a college girlfriend he got pregnant in a failed attempt to avoid family scandal. According to the author, his family members have been largely uninterested in his work, just like Jay’s family. One of his sisters did indeed sell a book he had inscribed to her. And his brother, Alexander, recreated in Mother Land as Floyd, a poet and professor, did trash him and his books, which he denounced as “beach reads” in a devastating eight-page piece in Boston Magazine in 1996.
Theroux skillfully captures the hazards of returning home in late middle age — the feelings of failure and defeat, the sense of déjà vu and returning to a childlike state, and the depressing realization that in witnessing a parent’s decline, one is getting a grim preview of one’s own impending fate. As his siblings jockey for the affections and money of Mother, who defiantly lives past 100, threatening to outlast her children, Theroux vividly and accurately captures the complexities of interpersonal relations in a big family of “talkers, [where] it seemed there were no listeners.”
“[T]he story of any large family is worth telling,” Theroux writes, “because such families have been forgotten, yet the members of these complex and crazed clans have helped shape the world we know now, probably for the worse.”
Family secrets are power, and anything told to one member of the family is immediately passed on to others and often distorted. Jay’s family members callously scuttle relationships with two of his love interests, alienate the illegitimate son who comes back into his life decades after his birth, and derive delight and vindication from his failings. Mother finds “survivor’s strength” when her husband and a succession of friends die, and Jay finds himself developing a respect for her as she nears death. Alliances and allegiances shift and turn, rivalries and grievances simmer, and the dialogue and situations are so real that Mother Land reads like a delicious family confession.
Like Theroux, I grew up in a big family (six kids) of talkers, not listeners. And while I have a lot more affection for my mother and the rest of my family than he apparently does, I find that I’ve never read another book that better captures the tensions of existence in between the passing storm clouds of family feuds and rivalries. At 76, it would be easy for Theroux — who still writes his books in longhand with pen and paper — to rest on his laurels and enjoy the good life in Hawaii and Cape Cod. Instead he has written this audacious book, tackling the most intimate and painful subject matter — his own crazy family — in a compelling way. Creative types are supposed to enter a period of decline as they age, but somehow, against the odds, the old master Paul Theroux keeps getting better.