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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Action" by Paul Theroux

Issue: August 4, 2014

Story: "Action"

Author: Paul Theroux

Review: I am fantastically un-enthused by this offering from Paul Theroux, which is a bit of a bummer cause I usually like his stories with their exotic locations and undertones of darkness and sexuality. Not only was this story not that engaging, but it seemed like half a story and the resolution was just a complete let-down.

The plot...a sheltered, working-class kid in mid-20th century Boston has an older and more mischievous friend who introduces him to his girlfriend, who may or may not be a prostitute. One day the sheltered kid goes back to visit the sort-of prostitute and gets roughed up by one of her male callers. He returns to his father, who seems to know that his son has been up to no good.

Hey...it seems like an okay premise for a story. But somehow Theroux manages to prevent any real emotion or suspense from seeping in here. The depiction of the boy's over-bearing father was lukewarm, and only got slightly interesting when the boy runs into a woman who may or may not have had a thing with (or for) his dad. In the hands of someone better adept at depicting the inner emotions of a child, this might have been a neat coming-of-age story; however, Paul Theroux is not great at mapping the inner life of children and adolescents, at least not to my experience. He is really good at mapping the inner emotions, desires, and conflicts of adults...and that's what he should stick to, in my opinion. But whatever.

Just seemed a bit under-wrought, to me, a failing which is usually the problem when you read a lukewarm story by a famous writer in the NYer; they just seem under-cooked and under developed, not bad per se.

You can just imagine a bleary-eyed Paul Theroux sitting at his type-writer (in an age when we still used type-writers) while the New Yorker fiction editor stands in front of him, doing that "I've gotta pee" dance, his hand over Theroux's typewriter, ready to snatch away the last page of the story and send it to print. All while Theroux is sitting there grumbling "Alright, alright, alright already..." and lamenting the day he ever signed a contract to write three (or however many) stories for the NYer per year.

Seems like maybe an unfinished piece of a longer novel? Maybe a snippet from Theroux's life? I suppose it might have been okay if I knew a bit more going into this, but...eff that...a story should stand on it's own, right? As is, I was un-impressed.

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