"A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta," By Paul Theroux, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 279 pages; $26
There's a house-of-mirrors moment in "A Dead Hand," Paul Theroux's new novel, when his narrator-protagonist, a travel writer named Jerry Delfont, meets up in Calcutta with a travel writer named Paul Theroux.
"What I knew about Theroux," Delfont writes, "is what everyone knew about him. He was known for being intrusive, especially among the unsuspecting - strangers he met on trains, travelers who had no idea who he was, people thinking out loud in unguarded moments. I suspected that much of what he wrote was fiction, since he'd started his writing life as a novelist." Delfont concludes from their conversation that Theroux is insincere, a phony, driven and competitive and envious. "I also knew that he was going to write about me, about meeting me, and that he'd get everything wrong."
So what we have here is Paul Theroux writing about Jerry Delfont writing about Paul Theroux. It's an oddly self-conscious moment, though whether it's self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing on Theroux's part is a little hard to say. It also plays only a tangential role in the plot: Theroux is there to find out what Delfont knows about a mysterious American woman named Merrill Unger, and Delfont isn't willing to let Theroux know that he knows a lot about her.
There's a lot Delfont doesn't know, too, and that forms the plot of the novel. He meets Mrs. Unger (as he continues to think of her even after they've become intimate) when she sends a letter to him at his hotel in Calcutta. She explains that her son is an admirer of his writing and that a friend of her son's may be in trouble: The friend woke up in a fleabag hotel to find the body of a dead boy on the floor. She wonders if Delfont could help her son's friend.
Delfont is afflicted with writer's block, which he refers to as "dead hand." (That's not the only explanation of the title the novel provides.) So he goes to see Mrs. Unger and gets involved in more than he expected. He learns that she's very wealthy, that she runs a kind of home for children she picks up on the Calcutta streets, that she's a devotee of the goddess Kali and that she gives a terrific tantric massage.
He learns that she despises Mother Teresa, with whom she once worked, as a fame-seeker and celebrity hound who "believed that poverty made people better." He learns other things, too, which we won't go into here, except to cite the warning of his friend Howard, who works at the American Consulate: "A lot of foreign women get goddess complexes."
As a novelist, Theroux has made a kind of specialty of stories about people who go to places where they don't really belong and consequently get into major messes, the way Allie Fox does in "The Mosquito Coast," for example. And Jerry Delfont's problem is that he - one of the "big pink foreigners" - doesn't belong in "populous Calcutta, city of deformities," no matter how infatuated he becomes with Mrs. Unger.
In fact, Mrs. Unger herself gives him the bitterest insight: India is "a culture of evasions. This country is very dirty. It's impossible to tell the truth here. The truth is forbidden, especially in writing. Anyway, a truthful book about India would be unbearable - about spite, venom, cruelty, sexual repression, incest, and meaningless crimes." Later, Delfont would reflect, "Of all the foreigners I met in India, she was the one who was most at home."
Is "A Dead Hand" a truthful book about India? It certainly has all those "unbearable" things that Mrs. Unger enumerates. It also has an abundance of richly drawn characters, Mrs. Unger the most enigmatic and scariest of them. Theroux has used his travel writer's eye and ear and his novelist's imagination to craft a tense, disturbing, funny and horrifying book around all of them.