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
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
"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
"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,
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. …