Publication of this “new” novel by Paul Theroux will certainly catch the eye of longtime fans of the man’s work, but this time there is both good and bad news for fans to consider. The good news is that Theroux’s Murder in Mount Holly is, indeed, a “new” novel to most American readers because it has never before been published in this country; the bad news is that the novel is actually forty-two years old and most definitely shows its age. The American version of this short novel first published in the U.K. in 1969 - and republished there in 1998 as part of a Theroux collection - is finally being released tomorrow (December 6, 2011).
Murder in Mount Holly is a dark comedy set during the turbulent years of American history during which the generations were largely split by angry debate over the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War. Theroux uses an assortment of characters thrown together by chance to illustrate how this unpopular war affected Americans of all ages and political beliefs. The over-the-top approach to storytelling he uses here, despite not always working well for Theroux, does make this short novel a hard one to forget.
College student Herbie Gneiss, at the insistence of his recently widowed mother, decides to leave school so that he can financially support her huge grocery consumption pace (this is one very large woman). This will prove to be an exceptionally poor decision when young Herbie is drafted just weeks after finding work at the Kant-Brake company, a firm that produces detailed and realistic war toys for America’s children. Rather unfortunately for his mother, as it will turn out, Herbie has already introduced her to the new love of her life, Mr. Gibbon, an older man he met at his boarding house. When Herbie leaves for basic training, his mother moves into that boarding house to be near Mr. Gibbon- and the trouble begins.
The rest of this short novel involves the planning and execution of a farcical bank robbery by Mr. Gibbon, Herbie’s mother, and their landlady, Mrs. Ball. Despite the ensuing violence and tragedy that follows, the cartoonish nature of Theroux’s approach to the story makes it difficult, if not impossible, for his anti-Vietnam-War message to make much of an impact on the reader. Murder in Mount Holly is not Paul Theroux’s finest effort - far from it, in fact. It will, however, interest the type of reader that feels compelled to read every page written by a favorite author, if simply to understand better that author’s progression from mediocrity to excellence over the years.
Rated at: 2.0