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.
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.