TWO DECADES AFTER THREE WOGS EARNED A nomination for the National Book Award, author Alexander Theroux was accused of plagiarism in the New York Times. A few years before that, a remark he made started a scandal that cost him his job. His best novel, Darconville's Cat, is a linguistic tour de force that's formally inventive and psychologically devious (well, deviant). An Adultery, the novel that followed Darconville's Cat, has a more complex version of a vaguely similar story, told in language so ordinary, it seems almost daring. He has also written fables, plays, poems, and essays, but any computer search of his surname in a news data bank is more likely to spit out reviews of books by his brother Paul than any notice of this master of allusion and wordplay and wretched excess.

Now, thanks to Fantagraphics, Alexander Theroux is doing a series of monographs on comics artists. The first of these, The Enigma of Al Capp, is a sloppy piece of work, a little light writing packaged for light reading. As if not to offend the writer, the editorial corps seems to have refrained from correcting obvious lapses in continuity and style, let alone from challenging Theroux to establish what was so enigmatic about the creator of Li'l Abner. When Capp was nine he lost a leg to a trolley car, so naturally the little prick grew up bitter. He went on to draw satirical comics, to attack whatever inspired his envy, hate, or fear, from fat cat industrialists (in his impetuous youth) to Vietnam War protesters (in his conservative dotage). Theroux's descriptions of the strip, buttressed by illustrations, don't quite explain why Capp should be thought of as anything more than a popular phenomenon.

If crazy detours mark the career of an artist intent on exploring new territory, Alexander Theroux is a true king of the road. In The Primary Colors (1994) and The Secondary Colors (1996), he perfected an essay form that covers a topic (in this case, a color) by leaping enthusiastically from one reference to another, in an order inspired by personal association rather than grounded in logical discourse. The odd effect of reading about blue is that it becomes indistinguishable from, say, orange, as the rhythm of factoids and feelings perversely lend themselves to a substitution exercise. (For proof, pick any sentence in one essay and insert it into another, substituting nouns until the sentence fits the new situation.)

A fact-checker's nightmare for those of literal rather than literary bent, The Primary Colors touched off a legal alarm, as well. In March 1995, a reader noticed that some of its passages bore a startling resemblance to parts of Song of the Sky by Guy Murchie, published 40 years earlier. Busted in the New York Times, Theroux pled bad note-taking; i.e., he had neglected to cite Murchie by mistake. This defense was generally accepted, as Theroux had cited so many other sources. After all, literary allusions--conscious or otherwise--are inevitable, if now somewhat more billable than they used to be, in the current climate of global warnings over intellectual property disputes.

Although the Colors essays represent a departure from Theroux's fiction, his most recent novel, An Adultery (1987), can be read as a fictional essay on the subject of adultery. As a story, the book is necessarily repetitive and predictable, a scab-picking festival. An artist, Christian Ford, narrates the saga of his affair with a dumb bunny, Farol Colorado, with such plain language and earnest yet clueless intelligence, the novel seems written by Richard Ford. It is, nonetheless, a fairly intriguing character study, as Christian's love object wrings out his obsessions by deceiving him. With his naive narrator struggling manfully for control, Theroux invokes an unwritten parallel narration, where readers like me just wish Christian would shut up so we could hear how Farol fucked him over, in her words.

For those who prefer fiction that's dominated by psychological development and uncomplicated by flamboyant language (I don't), An Adultery may seem like an improvement over the two novels preceding it. With its dazzling vocabulary, play of different voices, and a profusion of forms, Darconville's Cat is a 700-page showcase of ornate and meticulous syntax, in a variety of styles and modes, mixing the natural with the supernatural and romantic fantasy with cynical satire. The names of the characters are verbal celebrations; the characters themselves are verbose projections of the quirks of the narrator (they are not, thank god, "real" people who threaten to jump off the page). Although Darconville's Cat has the breadth of some of its ambitious contemporaries (Mulligan Stew, Gravity's Rainbow), its digressions keep in close touch with the central story. The story of the doomed love of a professor for his student may be a maudlin cliché and even a prequel to the unbalanced love affair of An Adultery, but Theroux brings it off with an aplomb that consciously emulates and doesn't fall far short of the accomplishment of Lolita.

Darconville's Cat fulfills the expectation stimulated by Three Wogs (1972), a trio of related novellas which, unlike many a short story collection that appropriates the term, functions as a novel. The three stories are set in London, where foreigners are "wogs," and Theroux's language is a wonderful concoction of slang, inventions, and dictionary diamonds in the rough. Although each story pits a rollicking English bigot against someone from beyond the pale, the tone shifts from humorous in Mrs. Proby Gets Hers to sinister in Childe Roland to enervating in The Wife of God, as a thematic superstructure builds toward a climax at the end of the second story and plays out a denouement with the finale. Sprung from horrible circumstances in China, India, and Africa, these men haven't come to Britain to be treated as victims, nor to Theroux's pages to be portrayed as poster boys. They can be as spiteful and racist as the limeys, as strong or weak as the people who wish they'd go "back home."

In view of his stand against racism in Three Wogs, as well as in much of Darconville's Cat, Theroux was flabbergasted to find himself pilloried for a remark he made in the aftermath of the 1988 Central Park Jogger case, in which a white woman was beaten and raped by six black men. In a letter to a black psychologist who, Theroux thought, had publicly defended the rapists, he called the rapists "monkeys." Perhaps more surprising than the chain reaction of events that led to him losing his teaching job at Yale was the forum Theroux chose to plead his case, years later: the introduction to his The Lollipop Trollops (1991), a volume of what the author himself modestly and correctly confesses are "poems by a novelist." With the poems "Black Racist," "Boogie Man Blues," and "Cocaine Cat," he continues a pathetic argument for exoneration, occasionally lunging into dialect, as he insinuates himself into the text as hero (or, anti-hero) with an awesome temerity.

After inhabiting, however personally, the characters Christian Ford, Darconville, and his Lollipop Trollop self, no wonder Alexander Theroux has turned to the likes of Al Capp and Robert Crumb. The world of comics needs serious criticism from outside the field. In a way, though, the Capp book is the worst kind of treacherous lip service, emblematic of an inferiority complex Fantagraphics should repudiate. Let's get a big name author to write a monograph about a famous cartoonist, so we can stake out some critical respectability! When the big shot turns in garbage, do you accept it and pretend everything's fine, or do you hold him to the same standards of quality you enforce for every other person who submits work to you, the standards that made you what you are?

WORKS DISCUSSED: THREE WOGS (Holt, 1972), DARCONVILLE'S CAT (Holt, 1981), AN ADULTERY (Holt, 1987), THE LOLLIPOP TROLLOPS (Dalkey Archive, 1991), THE PRIMARY COLORS (Holt, 1994), THE SECONDARY COLORS (Holt, 1996), THE ENIGMA OF AL CAPP (Fantagraphics, 1999)

all by Alexander Theroux.

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