Theroux’s first novel Waldo was a picaresque story of a young man who became a success as a writer. It sold around 4000 copies, which was impressive for a first novel, but did not generate enough money for Theroux to quit his day job. His second novel Fong and the Indians, was the first of many “African books” and it was his first book (of many) that dealt with the complexities of a changing Africa. The protagonist was a bungling anti-hero, Sam Fong, a Chinese Catholic grocer. It, too, had limited sales and while it had good reviews, especially in England, it didn’t make any best seller lists.
Then came Girls at Play a year later. Paul would write about writing Girls at Play: “My future wife taught at a girls’ school in Kenya. While I was writing (Fong and the Indians), I courted her by driving hundreds of miles on rutted roads, from Kampala to her bush school north of Nairobi. Kenya a had been heavily colonized by unsubtle and presumptuous white people with sharp elbows; so the atmosphere-different from that of Uganda-interested me, and a girls’ school seemed to contain all the contradictions and snobberies and class distinctions of imperialism.”
One reader who commented on the book summed it up by writing, “I liked Girls at Play in much the same way as I like a lot of Kingsley Amis’ second rung novels, in that I wouldn’t recommend them to someone who wasn’t already familiar with the author, and, in spite of enjoying it quite a lot myself, wouldn’t necessarily expect anybody else to do so. It’s not a fun book and it’s not a trendy book, and it requires us to meet Theroux further than halfway to get anything out of it. It’s exactly the sort of book that wouldn’t be a best-seller.”
That was true enough. The novel came and went, nevertheless, it is a very good book, and especially for anyone who was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Africa in the early Sixties.
The Times in London came out with a review saying, “Paul Theroux deserves a prize for inventing the most unpleasant female character I’ve met in fiction for a long time.” The Manchester Guardian went onto say, “a grimly funny book that builds up to its highly-unpleasant climax with a graceful and sardonic shiver.”
Theroux’s jaundiced eye is evident here as it has been for most of his novels. Reading the novel, I found myself (naturally) focusing on B.J. the PCV who Theroux brings to Kenya as a twenty-one-year old who is oddly young, given all her travel experiences. For example, having her be surprised that an English woman would recognize that she is American from her accent. Hello?
But then Theroux wants the American woman to be dense. In fact, B.J. knows it herself. It was the reason she joined the Peace Corps, she thinks. “She knew she was dense, but was also curious, a wondering that was at times harmful, for no second-hand description, no matter how detailed, could satisfy it. It was this wondering insulated in layers of density that had let her to join the Peace Corps and come to Africa.”
Theroux also has the Peace Corps character too naïve, even if it was the early Sixties. She was asked out by an African and Theroux writes: “She was not troubled by this; she knew she would go out with him. There were many reasons, a little bit of polities, maybe some guilt, and even if there were no love there would be sympathy and curiosity. He wasn’t a bad guy. And even if he was (he wasn’t) life at the school was dull and why else had she gone all the way into Los Angeles to take the Peace Corps exam and put up with the Mickey Mouse of three months’ training and come all the long way to Africa, if not to get to know Africans?”
Well, Paul was right about the Mickey Mouse training in the early days of the agency, having trained himself at Syracuse in the summer of ’63.
The book is laced with Peace Corps references that cut to the core, (not that we wouldn’t agree with most of them).
There are several pages in the middle of the novel when Theroux focuses his full attention on this young PCV. She is in Africa, teaching, and she feels cheated by the Peace Corps Experience.
Theroux writes: “She remembered her first thoughts of Africa, standing in the oval-domed lobby of the airport in New York with thirty other Peace Corps Volunteers (serious little buggers with sunglasses and handbooks and rucksacks, greeting each other in too-loud Swahili).”
Her “Africa” was the Africa of Hollywood and books, of The African Queen and Papa Hemingway.
Theroux sums up: “B.J. had expected the exotic, the mysterious at least. It was not asking much-mystery was easy. But Africa was not mysterious, only disorganized, slow and dull. If there was a secret, it was that there was really none. And the sun in Africa, the blazing heat? It had been hotter in San Diego.”
I won’t spoil the novel for you by telling what happens to B.J. and the other “girls” in Theroux’s novel. But it is not what you expect, let me just say that.