Character Assassination

The London Embassy By Paul Theroux Houghton Mifflin: 244 pp.; $13.95

THERE ARE SOME WRITERS who seem quite fund of the characters they create. Paul Theroux, on the other hand, dislikes almost everyone here writes about. But frankly, the persons he presents in his in test book. The London Embassy, suggests that Theroux himself is eminently dislikable.

Although Theroux is American, The London Embassy is set, like all his other books, abroad. It is a collection of short stories with continuing characters, most of whom belong to the staff of the American Embassy in London. The milieu of the foreign service career is appropriate for the sorts of people Theroux writes about rootless by nature, somewhat surprised at having aged so quickly without realizing it, and with a nagging suspicion that in all their travels they have always missed out on something, although they're not quite sure what.

The narrator, Spencer Monroe Savage--who remains unnamed until the last page of the book--seems a contrived sort of literary ventriloquist's dummy for Theroux. Through Savage, the author indulges in his witty and merciless taste for characterization, which invariably portrays his subjects in their weakest and most unattractive light. This dispassionate and always slightly disgusted--sounding tone is familiar from Theroux's previous books, including his non-fiction. The narrator of The London Embassy always seems to be presenting a bland, agreeable face to the people he is speaking to, while in his thoughts--to which we are privy--he seizes on their flaws, as when he describes his superior at the embassy:

Vic Scaduto--"Skiddoo" to the office--all gestures, all heel clicks on the corridor tiles, shooting his pink cuffs, tugging at his earlobe, pinching his face at his reflection in the elevator mirror, tap-dancing as he talked and as his bubble gum snapped... He had teeth like piano keys, and spit flew out of his mouth when he talked.

But Savage is not entirely unjustified in his disparaging assessments, for he encounters an extraordinarily unattractive group of people. In "An English Unofficial Rose," Savage falls, in love with Sophie Graveney, a "glamorous and intelligent" young Englishwoman, apparently unemployed and unattached. When Savage asks her what she does for a living, she says, "I just do a little acting," a statement which he does not fully understand until after she places him in an apartment with suggestive remarks of "Wouldn't it be super to live there?" Savage is hooked and signs a lease, but he is rudely disappointed when the only further communication he receives from her is a business like letter demanding her two percent finder's fee for the apartment.

When he visits Scaduto at home, Savage is fascinated by the revolting behavior of the Scaduto's sons, who attend a "really fine" English prep school and have picked up from their snobbish schoolmates' upper-class English accents, frantic status competition and bigoted attitudes. Savage listens to the conversation of the children:

"Our maid's Italian," Jocko said. Littlefair said, "We've got two, a husband and wife. They're Spanish. You can hear them arguing at night. All Spaniards argue after work." "We're not Italian," Mario Scaduto was saying. "We're American. We've got this huge house in Silver Springs, Maryland." But Mario's accent, and its nervous urgent tweet, was English. "We went to Trinidad on a yacht my father chartered," the mouse-faced boy called Littlefair was explaining.

Another of the unattractive characters is Everett Horton ("Yale '51"), "our number two." Horton is, and tries desperately to emphasize that he is, "a man of action":

He was a hugger, a hand-shaker, a back-slapper--body-English--and when something important came up he tore downstairs and interrupted whatever I was doing and said, "You're the only one around here who can straighten this out. You've been in the Far East, not in Washington, among the cookie-pushers!"

The "something important is that one of the minor embassy employees, who has never had any comment on his work or his personal life other than that he was "highly efficient" in the former, and "a bit invisible" in the latter, has begun to sport an carring. This upsets Horton so much that he throws up, and he appoints Savage to "persuade" the employee to get rid of the earring by threatening to fire him. In fact, the employee is not homosexual, us Horton feared, but only incredibly naive, and when Savage cleverly lures him to a gay for he sees the folly of his ways.

THEROUX IS a clever and adopt writer, he puts a lot of funny lines into Savage's mouth. He remarks that Scaduto's wife "was one of those people who can say. "I just wrote a poem,' and make it round like, 'I just flushed the canary down the toilet'--like the maddest, most irrational act on earth." Of the English, he observes that they

seemed rather proud of their capacity for suffering. It made them the world's best airline passengers, but had given them one of the world's worst airlines. Surely this 'mustn't grumble' attitude accounted for a great deal of Britain's decline? But of course it made the place nice and quiet. Our vices are so often our virtues as well.

But this unceasing sardonic disdain and unforgiving attitude toward people's flaws becomes a little tiresome, and so it is a relief to read "Fury," which is the best and most surprising story in the book. It is one from which Savage is absent until the very end, appearing as the narrator with a contrived-seeming entrance that makes us think Theroux wrote the story and then haphazardly adapted it to fit into the formula of the book.

In "Fury," Mary Snowfire, a young American, comes to stay in London and is forced by circumstances to take a job in a bookstore, living in a small, sparse apartment and scraping to pay her expenses. When she takes pity on a homeless man, who lives in a makeshift shelter in a public common, and lets him sleep on her floor one cold winter evening, he steals all her few possessions and escapes back to his home in Yorkshire. She is driven by an intense compulsion for revenge to bicycle all the way out to Yorkshire and perform a rather gruesome act of retribution. Mary is one of the few characters who makes no compromises, never sacrifices her principles, and she is perhaps the only one who is liked and admired by Savage, and by Theroux.

But for the most part, Theroux seems to share the attitudes he describes in a character in "The Man on the Clapham Omnibus," a member of the peerage who inherited along with his title debts which have made him poor and bitter:

He despised people for their common-looking faces and the careless way they spoke. Seeing them eat made him sick. He could not bear to watch anyone eat, he said. And there were sights just as bad--watching people blow their nose, hearing them laugh, seeing their underwear on a clothesline.

Theroux is revealing something telling about his own view of things. At the end of The London Embassy, Savage marries the beautiful woman he has lusted after through the final three stories, and we are disappointed; we feel that he really doesn't deserve to end up happy. Like his main character, though, Theroux doesn't really care about us or anyone else, as long as things work out the way he wants them to.