Paul Theroux: “Action”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Paul Theroux’s “Action” was originally published in the August 4, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

What a great story. Economical, comic, and compassionate, “Action,” by Paul Theroux, tells of a father and son who are negotiating an understanding of each other. The father, a widower, is cautious; the son, a small fifteen year old, is impatient. To the father who has lost his wife, the son must be protected. To the son who wants to get on with things and get some “action,” whatever that is, the world beckons. I have enjoyed very much Theroux’s recent stories. Is it because I live in Massachusetts and these stories take place in Medford or Boston? Is it because I know Theroux is about my age, and the stories seem to be about my past as well? Yes, and yes, but these are good stories, and this — the best.

Theroux mentions in his interview with Deborah Treisman (here) that one of his favorite stories is “The Steppe,” by Chekhov. Theroux remarks that “Action” is “a tiny footnote to that great tale.” That story (which you can read online here in Constance Garnett’s translation) tells of a boy traveling by train in the company of some older men. So “Action” is another New Yorker piece in the spirit of one story in honor of another.

How autobiographical is this story by someone who is 72? I don’t know, but I would like to remark that the story feels like someone remembering his own life. The writer is not apart from his characters, not above them. I am reminded of “A&P” and Updike, who often is writing from a superior point of view. Another thing the story accomplishes is the revelation of feeling — something a recent autobiographically induced story (“Last Meal at Whole Foods”) struggled with. “Action” felt universal. I am a woman, and this story reminded me of being a girl, wanting adventure, and getting in over my head.

Finally, I enjoyed very much the conceit that both father and son could be “two people.” The story works a little bit like a poem — it doesn’t tell you everything — but it tells just enough for you to be drawn in and to also sense how, for instance, one’s own father might be “two people.” For that surprising reverie, I thank Theroux.

6 thoughts on “Paul Theroux: “Action””

  1. Rosalind says:

    I read this story to my husband on the drive to visit our son and his family. We both thought it a tender coming of age story that hit the mark. We didn’t grow up in the Boston area but our memories of navigating around Brooklyn were similar. Yes, Action felt universal.

  2. Greg says:

    Good point Betsy regarding a father being “two people”! This reminds me of Alice Munro’s “Walker Brothers Cowboy”.

  3. Sean H says:

    Far from what Besty calls a “great story,” I found it rather predictable, loaded and gimmicky. There’s a thin line between “charming” and “dated” and this one falls slightly on the wrong side of said line. It’s not a poorly written story by any means. It grabs your attention, it creates realistic characters in a concise and efficient space. There aren’t really any egregious areas of sentimentality but it’s equally far from originality. Theroux’s never really blown me away though he is consistently competent. Reads like the sort of story that if it were submitted by someone with less name recognition and without a history of publishing in the New Yorker never would have seen the proverbial light of day in the hallowed pages (beneath one of the weaker covers in recent memory, as a side point).
    Bets I know doesn’t like my harsh and honest style of discourse, but I think she reveals herself quite tellingly here by referencing Updike in the negative. Whatever one subjectively thinks of it, “A & P” is a time-tested and canonical classic (almost the textbook definition of a “great story”) which she actually speaks about in the negative (and without follow-up or explanation), going so far to imply that distance from one’s characters is a bad thing. Anyone who’s taken the most rudimentary writing workshop knows that what an author wants is distance from and separation from his/her characters.
    There have been some compelling/inspired stories in the New Yorker this year (Gilbert’s, Lethem’s) but this one, though clever, I can’t quite rank in the compelling/inspired category.

  4. Betsy Pelz says:

    Sean, I do reveal myself tellingly. I have always struggled with Updike’s point of view. I do not think I am alone.

    You are right, however. To not prefer Updike and to not explain in detail is presumptuous. But to explain in detail would require re-reading a lot of Updike, and right now I prefer reading Philip Roth – for the first time. So I guess putting my dis-interest in Updike aside is a necessity on both counts.

  5. Ken says:

    I basically agree with Sean. I found this very familiar stuff, part what I imagine is personal history from Theroux and part standard coming-of-age story. Last week’s story by Sayrafiezadeh was called familiar, but it’s a paragon of deep originality compared to this, partly as it has more levels of meaning, in my opinion. I often enjoy Theroux’s stories and noted he has a collection coming out called “Mr. Bones” which was also a story about a father and son and much better I thought than this.

  6. I still haven’t read this one, though I need to, being a fan generally of Theroux’s work. I will try to soon to see where I land.

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