Half-Moon Street by Paul Theroux

The Tennessean, October 14, 1984, page 8-D

Half Moon Street. By Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin. $14.95

Theroux Stories Reflect Human Duality

Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE

Half Moon Street, the enigmatic title of Paul Theroux’s latest book, evokes the half-obscured and ambiguous personalities not only of his main characters but, he implies, of his readers.

Reflecting Theroux’s theme of human duality, the book is not a novel but a diptych comprising one novella, “Doctor Slaughter,” and one long short story, “Doctor Demarr.”

A modern tale of American innocence abroad, “Doctor Slaughter” is a subtle depiction of the American habit of denying the darker side of others and, worse yet, of ourselves. Lauren Slaughter, an attractive young American woman with a doctorate in International Relations, studies in London as a fellow at a vague government institute.

Despite a patina of sophistication and worldliness, Lauren—whose real given name is Mopsy—is profoundly naïve. Seeing no potential for harm in sexuality, she readily uses her body to advance herself, whether to pay for plumbing repairs she can’t afford or to win academic prestige. Almost without thinking she is lured into the underworld of London as a call-girl for a shadowy escort service and begins to lead a double life.
The depth of her naiveté in thinking herself untainted and independent comes clear to her only at the conclusion, after a sinister “date” tries to murder her, and she learns that she has been the tool of an international intrigue to assassinate a high-ranking diplomat.

She is not so much an “ugly American” as one radically confused, neither a villain nor a victim, but at once innocent and guilty.

Theroux concludes his diptych with “Doctor DeMarr,” a story of contemporary Boston in the gothic tradition of Poe’s “William Wilson.”

When Gerald DeMarr is visited by his identical twin brother George 20 years after George has vanished, Gerald’s dull and bitter life takes a sudden strange turn. His resentment of his dominant brother is so fierce that he vacations at Cape Cod while his brother mysteriously hides out in the house.

When he returns to find George dead of an overdose of heroin, he irrationally chooses to dispose of the body rather than to report the death. Though he initially feels liberated by the death, Gerald slowly but inevitably takes on the identity, and ultimately the destiny, of his hated brother.

While the plot of “Doctor DeMarr,” particularly in the ending, is too contrived, the story is a compelling counterpart to Doctor Slaughter.

On its own, as the novella appeared in Britain, “Doctor Slaughter” is somewhat remote and prone to misreading. By pairing it with “Doctor DeMarr,” Theroux has created a unified and accessible work as engrossing as his best novels.

John Bethune is a Sewanee, Tenn., free-lance writer.