Healthiness Next to Godliness? Paul Theroux's New Novel Plays on American Obsessions

Article excerpt

PAUL THEROUX, whom we last met kayaking alone among the isles of Oceania, has come home to Boston for his latest novel.

The results, however, are thoroughly exotic.

What else could we expect from an author whose fiction has exposed a writer's secret life and sexual exploits in Africa, whose essays have decried the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, whose travel books have floated him down the Yangtze River and along Argentina's desolate Patagonia?

His new work, "Millroy the Magician" (Random House, $27), centers on a fairground magician and his 14-year-old runaway assistant and how they start a religion.

It's also a critical and revealing look at American culture and obsessions, written by a man who has been abroad long enough to really notice them.

Millroy is a prophet of sorts. Through an evangelical television show and a nationwide chain of health-food restaurants that serve foods mentioned in the Bible, Millroy sets out to change the way America eats. His schtick: eat right, be regular, and you'll live for 200 years.

Jilly Farina, a waifish girl prone to exclamations of "Jeekers!" when Millroy performs a magic trick, is his inspiration.

What Theroux has done is tap into our obsession with health, longevity and television, found the biblical-gastronomical rationale for it - "You notice, people in the Bible live a long time" - and quite literally, made a religion out of it via televangelism.

"This is something that everyone can identify with," Theroux said recently while in New York promoting the book.

"But (Millroy is) the opposite of the kind of person we're used to seeing on television. He's not a fat guy who's saying, `Send me money.' And yet I see him as embodying a lot of the obsessions that we have.

"Millroy, if you look at him, is actually interpreting the Bible in a new way. He's saying, `This is how we can save America, by using the Bible in this way. Not in the traditional way by going to church and praying and beating our breasts,' " Theroux says.

Instead, " `Lets eat differently. Eat Bible food.' It's not a scientific message," Theroux warns. "It's the complete American package: You get healthy, you get thin, you're regular and you find the Kingdom of God at the end of it. This is what everyone wants, isn't it?"

Theroux pauses. "Whether we're going to get it, I don't know."

The author himself doesn't buy into the spirituality bit of Millroy's message. But he certainly has bought the health bit.

With a few exceptions, Theroux abides by the vegetarian, whole-grain, no smoking diet that Millroy advocates. In fact, while in New York, the author held a luncheon at his hotel featuring fancier versions of the dishes mentioned in the book. …