Girls At Play is Theroux’s second novel based on his experiences in Africa. In this novel three white women teachers in an upcountry girls’ school battle each other and Africa. It is in this book that B. J. Lebow, the first of Theroux’s Peace Corps characters, appears. “It’s sort of Jewish,” Lebow says of her name. “It used to be Lebowitz, I guess. You probably knew that, everybody does. But I’m no Jew. I went to Israel one summer. That cured me. What a bunch of boy scouts.”
A San Diego liberal, she has gone to Africa to help, but can reconcile her Hollywood fantasies of Africa with her liberal outlook. The other women are Miss Poole, the Headmistress, who was born in Africa and cannot live anywhere else. She wants to run her school [and Africa] on Christian principles. The third woman is Heather Monkhouse. She has left her dull job in London to go to Africa and find love. After being fired from a teaching job in Nairobi, she arrives at the upcountry secondary school within a whirl of rumors about her past life. All of the women are trapped at the school, and spend the novel struggling to survive.
Theroux uses his Peace Corps experience also in a short story that he has said is one of his favorites, “White Lies.” It was published in May, 1979 in Playboy and was included in a 40-year retrospective of Playboy fiction. Recalling the source of the story, [that I published in my collection of Peace Corps fiction, Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers,Curbstone Press, 1999] Theroux writes “In Malawi, in 1964, as a Peace Corps teacher, I took a trip to the shore of Lake Malawi with some other volunteers. We were all fending for ourselves, cooking, washing, and so forth. One day I developed a strange skin condition – red bumps, pimple-like; and soon they were large and painful, erupting all over my back and shoulders. Each one held a maggot, which began as an egg laid on my shirt by a putzi fly. Using matches and tweezers my Peace Corps buddy, Bob Maccani, dug them out – Zikomo kwambiri, Bambo Bob. For years I wondered how I could use this unexpected malady, and then I came up with this story, which is still one of my favorites, and full of detail from my experience in Africa.”
The short story involved a PCV (whom Theroux refers to only as a teacher) who brings home from the local bar every Saturday night, an African girl, Ameena, who does his ironing before heading back into town.
When the PCV takes up with the English headmaster’s daughter, home for the holidays from her Rhodesian secondary school, Ameena delivers a “present,” a shirt that, when he wears it, causes masses of tiny reddened patches, like fly bites, all over his body.
The PCV thinks he has been cursed by Ameena because he abandoned her for the pretty English girl. The fly bites turn into maggots, “their ugly heads stuck out like beads,” Theroux writes. As the narrator holds a cigarette lighter near the bites to ease the maggots out of his roommate’s skin, Theroux sums up, “The danger lay in their breaking: if I pulled too hard some would be left in the boil to decay, and that, I said, would kill him.”
The PCV leaves Africa at once, scarred by the experience, and the story’s narrator comments that the “life cycle [of the maggots] was the same as many others of their kind: they laid their eggs on laundry and these larvae hatched at body heat and burrowed into the skin to mature. Of course, laundry was always ironed – even drip-dry shirts – to kill them. Everyone who knew Africa knew that.” But not this PCV.