Have you ever wished you could travel up the river to meet Kurtz? I’m not talking about Joseph Conrad’s colonial agent; I mean the Marlon Brando of Apocalypse Now, fat, bald, mad, endowed with a vast spirit and an equally great hatred of mankind. If you have ever had such a wish or wondered idly what it would be like to spend time in Kurtz’s company, then allow me to recommend a book to you: Alexander Theroux’s novel Laura Warholic, or, The Sexual Intellectual. It is not about Vietnam (although its protagonist, Eugene Eyestones, is a veteran of that war), nor is it about colonialism or travels into the unknown (although a road trip across America does figure in it at one point). Laura Warholic is, mostly, about a magazine writer in Boston and his protracted — and, at times, nearly romantic — involvement with his editor’s ex-wife. And yet, as you make your way through one after another of the novel’s 878 pages, you may feel the darkness around you growing, as though the world were nothing but a camp of brutes deep in the jungle and a voice sighing, “The horror, the horror.”
Alexander Theroux is, as far as I know, neither fat nor bald, but otherwise the comparison with Kurtz seems apt. Like the captain, Theroux had a brilliant early career: he published his first novel, Three Wogs, in 1972 (he was 34), and on the strength of it, the Times called him “a certified, grade A, major new talent.” Two more novels followed: Darconville’s Cat (1981), a story of teacher-student love that, like Nabokov’s Lolita, cuts a wide, pitiless swath through the English language; and An Adultery (1987). There were also three book-length “fables,” among them the memorably titled The Schinocephalic Waif. A book of poems was on the way.
Then a cloud, or clouds. In 1989, Theroux was dismissed from his teaching job at Yale for referring to the defendants in the Central Park jogger case as “monkeys.” (The incident appears in fictive guise at the beginning of Laura Warholic.) In 1994, he published a collection of essays called The Primary Colors, and a year later someone noticed that parts of it were awfully reminiscent of another book, Guy Murchie’s Song of the Sky, published 40 years earlier. The Times reported the apparent plagiarism, and Theroux apologized: he had made so many notes for the book, he said, that he had forgotten which ones were original and which copied from other sources. His methods, you could say, had become unsound.
Like Colonel Kurtz’s skull-topped palisade, Laura Warholic, Theroux’s first novel in 19 years, is the fruit of long separation from the public world, and it shows. As in his earlier books, the vocabulary is dazzling: I added knix, shadrool, acromegalic, deblaterated, duckpop, gomphipathic, and rhabdomantic to my word watcher’s life list until, overwhelmed, I stopped keeping track. And, as before, these keen words are often put to wickedly amusing use. Here is a minor character, no sooner introduced than slaughtered:
Mr. Fattomale, whose odd haircut resembled bad topiary, snorted down his nose. He was tall and his cheeks were runneled like a gnocchi board, while one tooth jutted from his lower jaw. His complexion resembled a draftsman’s architectural symbol for rubble.
And down he goes. As the vilifications pile up, though, their inventiveness becomes less noticeable than their sheer number. Everyone in the novel gets skewered sooner or later, but the main villains, Warholic the editor and his ex-wife Laura, get it particularly badly: having described Laura as “built like a slat,” “long and sexless as a rolled umbrella,” “ slattern, tall, angular,” and so on, Theroux returns to the subject of her physique two pages later, to remark that “She resembled the scary cards of a Tarot pack, weak-lipped, spryless, a husk of unmotion. Her sharp-boned thinness was poultrylike.” And again: “Laura looked long as a cornrake, a spiky weed.” And again: “Her somewhat long neck, which otherwise might have been attractive, when stretched in peevish disapproval only added to a plethora of figure faults and gave her the bony look of a slattern with a broom-thin bosom and bones like the shadows of leafless trees.” “The shadows of leafless trees” is lovely, but haven’t we had “slattern” before? It doesn’t matter. Theroux is like a man fighting zombies: they go down, they get up again, they must be killed over and over, endlessly.
There is more to Laura Warholic than its put-downs, but not much more. Here and there, the reader comes across a catalog of things beloved by the protagonist, Eugene Eyestones, and for which Theroux (who resembles Eyestones in some particulars) also seems to feel affection: old jazz songs; the life of Marilyn Monroe; the stars in the constellation Orion. There are, in Eyestones’ unhappy entanglement with Laura Warholic, moments that recall Swann in love with Odette, in Proust’s Swann’s Way: the mean lies that the unfaithful offer to their lovers; the anguish of remaining with someone when your affection for that person has vanished. There’s even a moment when it seems as if something will happen: Eugene Eyestones, the “sexual intellectual,” is in trouble for writing controversial columns, and now we learn of Laura that “sex seemed to be the only subject that fascinated her,” and we think, Whoa, will there be a dramatic upset, whereby the slattern takes the intellectual’s place? There will not. (Something does happen late in the book, but it would be more than cruel to give it away here.)
Mostly, the pleasure of Laura Warholic lies in the sheer excess of its loathing. This is the Moby-Dick of misanthropy, with long sections on various subjects (San Francisco, the Irish, the creativity of women, democracy, etc.) especially deserving of contempt. Theroux’s knowledge of the modern world is perhaps less granular than it ought to be for a project of this scale: he ridicules tech companies, e.g., as “soulless, antiseptic firms that in their mad drive for more production had spent years hiring aggressive professional ‘facilitators’ with theories of innovative management” — right, but who didn’t know that already? But it is impressive nonetheless.
Is Laura Warholic a good book? It is a mad book. It is a badly edited book: at one point we learn that Eugene Eyestones’ father died, that his mother was killed in a traffic accident, and that his father then died again, of grief. It is an excessive book. But excess, as we knew even before we met Kurtz at the head of the river, has its own kind of power. It reminds us of how much, for good or ill, there is in us, of what great small-mindedness we are capable.