By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
560 pages, $28
If you’ve never had a problem parent, Paul Theroux has one for you in his overwritten, overlong yet irresistible new novel, “Mother Land.”
Never mind that the book, by its narrator’s own definition, is basically “a study of malice”; it also is devilishly funny -- and peopled by the sort of malcontents we don’t want in our own families but champion in others’.
Chief among them, of course, is the “pious busybody” known solely -- and regally -- as “Mother,” a tyrannical if slight woman with “the face of a mother and an appetite for power,” the veritable “monarch of Mother Land.”
Her subjects are seven in number – eight, if you count do-no-wrong Angela who was stillborn. All of the others are now in late middle age, all of them still in thrall to the woman the novel’s second most colorful character, Floyd, calls “Queen Lear.”
Her great gift is the ability to play her children like a symphony gone awry, a feat requiring her to deal with each child separately:
“United, we might oppose her; separate, quarreling, uncertain and unequal, we needed her,” explains the novel’s narrator, Jay. “This had been the case for years. But she was more secretive and fickle now than in the past …”
This is because, Jay realizes, “nothing was obvious to me about my family, the hidden tribe in Mother Land, until Father died.” With the death of the patriarch, it seems, Mother’s true treachery emerged, along with it the insistence that her children pay her frequent homage.
It should be noted here that Theroux – perhaps best known for his marvelous nonfiction travel books – has a reputation for using his novels and other works of fiction to paint sometimes unflattering pictures of family and friends. Whether or not “Mother Land” is based on his own materfamilias is anyone’s guess – but the acerbic Floyd of “Mother Land” is clearly a version of Theroux’ older brother Alexander who famously wrote a scathing review of Paul’s “My Other Life” for Boston Magazine, a review in which Alexander not only excoriated his brother’s work but wrote, among other personal jabs, that Paul “has bowel worries and eats prunes for breakfast.”
In “Mother Land,” wherein Floyd does the same to Jay, the seemingly heinous act is but the way Jay, Floyd and their siblings speak to one another – with insults and innuendo and disdain. It is a language they all honor in “Mother Land” as Mother goes gradually from the age of 83, when Father dies, to the hundred mark and beyond, her children also in the “old” column by book’s end.
“Pettiness animated the family and made it work … Disunity among her children strengthened her grip,” Jay observes as he unwinds his long skein of Motherly misdeeds, great and small, some so subtle one must be able to read each twitch of her lips as she smiles her imperious smile. (“She feasted on misfortune,” Jay confides.)
Jay and Floyd are the writers (and thus the black sheep) among the siblings here – the others being Fred, the firstborn and now an attorney; Franny and Rose, both school teachers; Hubby, a practical nurse, and the opera-loving Gilbert (whose work is unclear but keeps him mostly out of the country). Cape Cod is the locale, the time roughly now – and the book itself positively Updikean in its attention to domestic detail:
“Mother was shrinking, Floyd said. ‘She’s turning into a Q-Tip.’ It seemed true – she was growing paler, with thin wispy hair, like cobwebs curled on a twig, her sallow scalp showing through. Her skin was tissue, her eyes watery, with yellow, claw-like nails on ashen hands that were almost reptilian, as though in her old age she was devolving …”
Although a novel, “Mother Land” reads like a memoir cobbled together by essays, each bringing us up to date, in a repetitive mantra, on the latest doings in Mother Land – and they are corkers. Mother betrays Jay (as does Floyd); family secrets are bared; Jay’s out-of-wedlock son finds him; Mother’s financial shenanigans are uncovered; Jay and Floyd break and enter; and nearly everyone gathers at weddings, funerals, holidays not to mention Mother’s birthdays.
It is satire as broad as it gets – with, at its height, the whole family’s (Mother-commanded) attendance at a Mass in memory of Father, an event described in a section headed “Mottle Sin,” a nod to the celebrant, Father Corkery’s “lower-middle-class Irish accent of South Boston.”
It struck me, Jay says before the service, “that Mother intended to make a spectacle of our entrance into the church, our procession down the main aisle, Mother and her seven children, like Snow White and the dwarves…”
Theroux’ genius here includes couching one’s age-old pull back to childhood in terms so churlish and startling and hilarious that we are smitten. There is also the suggestion – Jay’s life so closely paralleling Theroux’ own – that much of this may be true, that Theroux is engaged in payback, or laughing at himself, or exorcising some demons.
“Justice” is the surname of the family here (hint, hint) and the Jay-Floyd dynamic seems something of an olive branch from Paul to Alexander as the fictional Jay and Floyd reestablish their childhood status as partners in crime and intelligence. Floyd, it must be added, is such a flamboyant and consistently acerbic creation that he fairly leaps from the page.
He, shades of Paul, is a poet and professor of literature at Harvard. He uses words like retromingent in everyday conversation, and wears a fedora upon family occasions. He also gets the best lines in “Mother Land,” and is sought out by his siblings:
“They needed him, needed his complex friendship, especially needed his protection, the reassurance that he would not hurt them with his vicious wit,” says Jay, recalling, at another point in the book, a visit from his London-based sons to their Uncle Floyd:
“He squinted at my sons and said, ‘Now tell me about England, which is ever so ducky, and that muffin-faced queen who is head of the church, God help her.”
“Queen” is the operative word here – the siblings’ own mother so ensconced in the role that, as Jay describes it, “Whatever she sat on was a throne.”
What’s more, he says, she had no respect for writers. “Reading was an indulgence, writing was unthinkable; no wonder they became my passion.”
Theroux has fashioned an unforgettable character here (two, counting the wonderfully insufferable Floyd) -- and he has given us a family for the ages. But his central message is one for all children of a truly elderly mother. As Jay puts it, “For as long as she lived, I would remain a boy.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist and frequent News book reviewer