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Book Review: An Adultery (1987) by Alexander Theroux

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Alexander Theroux’s name returned to the news with the publication of Laura Worholic: or, The Sexual Intellectual. The 878-page work can be intimidating to readers, especially those unfamiliar with Theroux’s bombastic, encyclopedic, maximalist style. A gateway to his larger works would be An Adultery, written more than two decades earlier and less than half the length of Laura Worholic. The writing is as straightforward as the slip of a plot.

Painter Christian Ford loves Farol Colorado. Farol is married, and Christian is going out with Marina. Complications ensue. While the adulterous male narrator may be one of the most clichéd characters in American fiction, Theroux uses the stock characters to enter a world of deception, dissimulation, and denial. Between Ford’s introspections into the nature of relationships, he treats the reader to lengthy dissections on East Coast intellectuals, the arts scene, and New Hampshire. The residents of St. Ives, the small university town where he teaches art, “had no manners, only etiquette, and yet to emphasize correctness made every attempt whenever possible to drink port, play racquetball, sail boats, see art films, flambé food, affect ascots, collect paintings, cross their sevens, wear legible clothing, subscribe to concerts, hire help, and in general follow no fashion by which first hadn’t been established a precise – and identifiable – semiotic function.” When Theroux writes satire, it’s like reading a mad cross between François Rabelais and Evelyn Waugh.

Speaking through Christian Ford, his assessment of New Hampshire is no less scathing, vicious, and hilarious. “I saw more of the damn state than I ever thought there was of it. New Hampshire has always been cheap, mean, rural, small-minded, and reactionary. It’s one of the few states with neither a sales tax nor an income tax.” Then he takes the gloves off: “Expecting aid for the poor there is like looking for an egg under a basilisk. It places lowest nationally in what it spends on anything. The state encourages skinflints, cheapskates, shutwallets, and pinched little joykillers who move there as a tax refuge to save money.” I don’t imagine Mr. Theroux gets many calls to write copy for the New Hampshire Office of Travel and Tourism.

Nevertheless, the book contains more than snark and satire. The slow disintegration of Christian and Farol’s relationship is as nuanced as Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. While the premise is basic, Theroux still manages to create an ending filled with devastation and heartbreak. Ford faces irreplaceable loss, but whom he loses is unexpected.

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