I just finished reading Saint Jack by Paul Theroux, the first in a series of novels I selected based on their settings — each of the ports of call on the extended sea journey we are about to undertake. Tomorrow we embark from here, Singapore, eventually to reach Athens, 34 days from now. With ample time between stops, I thought a well-considered reading list might provide perspective, and a narrative thread for our travels.
The protagonist of Theroux’s piece, Jack Fiori (Flowers in the story), is a classic American anti-hero, of the type regularly conjured up in the sixties. A Kerouac from the north side of Boston who, after a minor scrape with the law, heads west, but right on past California, coming to rest and going to ground in Singapore, after a time as a merchant seaman.
Theroux paints a picture of this place, late fifties through early Vietnam days, via Jack’s eyes, memories, and stalled drifter’s sensibilities. The city was still decades away from becoming the globalized hub of today. It was gritty, open, and an end-of-land sort of place, with a bit of Casablanca’s magnetic appeal for souls set adrift for one reason or another from their homes.
Madams and pimps (Jack’s evening profession) and their ladies are prominent, as are ships’ chandlers (provisioners), cops, GIs on leave, local gangsters, and varieties of ex pats caught up and slowed down by the local heat and dead end aspect of this island nation. There’s a death, a kidnapping, and a plot that could have provided Jack with his long dreamed of path to riches — which he aborts in keeping with an ethos of American big heartedness.
So, so far, my plan is working. During this opening chapter of my journey’s story, I’m seeing right past the international business and tourist sets, reflexively checking their mobiles, to the film noir past of this special place… and I’m happy.
Next stop is what the locals call KL, just up and around the coast a bit. Inspector Singh will be showing me the way…
Check back here from time to time over the coming month or so, and you can come along. If you’re into visuals, here’s the place.