Three Wogs

by Eric Byrd

Filename-1-84Three Wogs (1973) is Alexander Theroux's first novel – the fruit of a Fulbright year in London, and a National Book Award nominee. It is the work of a verbal sorcerer and deep-seeing satirist unafraid of prolixity or obscurity in the pursuit of a complex effect: the grotesque real, the situations in which social aversions reveal erotic fears and fantasies. Theroux's three stories are set in liminal or subterranean spaces – “the depths where horror and pleasure coincide,” said Leiris.

1. The theater where the Sinophobe and refugee-tormenter Mrs. Proby goes to be deliciously alarmed before giant projected scenes of Fu Manchu's lubricious villainy:

The theatre, with its smell of weak lilac and cheap caporal, was the perfect hush in soft red lights that Mrs. Proby loved: funereal, anonymous, the nethermost retreat where the tired, amorous, and lonesome could sleep or fondle or expatiate in ones or twos or threes, far from the madding crowd and unbothered in the reliquary of pure imagination.

2. The nocturnal depot under Victoria Station where the troglodytic lout Roland McGuffey washes buses before emerging to menace an Indian student asleep on bench awaiting his train:

The sound of water was coming from some sourceless spot, a broken aqueduct, perhaps, or maybe some conduit water spilling out of an ancient furrow or some lead Roman leakage of Londinium. Roland blinked his eyes to adjust them to the darkness, then disappeared into a stairway like a bit of dirt into a Hoover—and stepped into the damp cellar. The cold light of tiny bulbs, blue and pennysized, strung out between eerie shadows and revealed a hushed ash-grey tomb, a cell of must, cannibalized, as if by Mulciber, into a warehouse for those who work by night – the dark, witching hours that slowly pass, soured, it always seems, by those deep and unassignable final causes that desperately remind us of our odd naked frailties and whisper to us we owe God a death.

3. The “dark labyrinth of shale-colored stone and traceried windows” where Reverend Which Therefore, a foppish ghoul of a clergyman living a nightmare a la Julien Green (his bookplate is a “ferroprussiate reproduction of one of Rouault's mauled Christs, with Which Therefore's name in ten-point type substituted for Pilate's inscription”), reluctantly officiates at the marriage of the African choirmaster with whom he is besotted to a girl who he can only picture “performing jack-flips on a runway in Great Windmill Street at a half-crown a go, a Salomé who'd divest down to the bone for a posy bag of shillings”:

Next to one of the columns sat a small table where one could purchase, for a shilling each, leather bookmarks embossed in pinchbeck, shiny postcards of the Family Windsor, and small pamphlets which stapled together the church's history…and prose accounts of various legends more than willingly enlarged upon, as was usual in these churches all over London, by little pie-faced but dedicated shawlies who sat lost in their mufflers, blueing in the cold, chatting with Japanese businessmen and troops of German girl scouts, and recommending this or that with chirps of delight and sad smiles—grumbling mercilessly only in the off chance they should be locked in overnight, a not infrequent hazard for the napping octogenarian placed in the same corner with long dead ladies and snipenosed, marmoreal queens.

I've quoted Three Wogs at its most scenic-atmospheric, but dialogue and indirect discourse are just as important in the book. Theroux creates comedy from the immigrants' accents and pedantically precise diction (especially in contrast with the grunts and growls of their tormentors), and elaborates the racists' fantasies with astounding rhetorical verve. Every page is rich and weird. Asked in the Bookslut interview why he incorporates “a multiplicity of narrative forms” into his novels, Theroux answered: “Pedantry. The delight in living. Brio. The chance to act, to mime, to mock, to mimic.” A wonderful credo.