The keynote of this collection by Paul Theroux is sounded when the narrator of a story set among U.S. Embassy members in London observes, “Ambassador Noyes had another trait I had noticed in many slow-witted people: he was tremendously interested in philosophy.” In another story, an American schoolteacher in Africa, proudly ignorant of everything but the right way to ingratiate himself with the local women, hastily puts on a shirt that hasn’t been ironed, that is, a shirt laden with the eggs of a certain insect whose “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.”

Theroux’s refusal to shrink from the physically disgusting, accompanied by a vaguely sadistic delight in the varieties of human self-deception and self-importance, coexists with a...


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