Bon appétit: Steve Coronella on a tasty tale by fellow Medfordite Paul Theroux

An Irishman’s Diary

Where books are concerned, I believe in being evangelical. Preach that they may read, is my motto.

The latest book to excite my missionary zeal is Paul Theroux’s 1993 novel, Millroy the Magician – whose title character, appropriately enough, derives an odd sort of inspiration from his reading of the Bible. The tale remains a brilliant satirical take on America’s religious and dietary habits. (Though born nearly a generation apart, Theroux and I share a hometown, Medford, Massachusetts – a fact that alerted me to his early work in high school – as well as a fondness for Cape Cod.)

Theroux is known primarily as a travel writer, so we tend to overlook his talents as a novelist. Of course, the two realms often overlap.

For instance, Theroux envisioned The Mosquito Coast – his 1982 tour de force about another American original, Allie Fox – during his train travels in Central America, which formed part of The Old Patagonian Express. In similar fashion, he was inspired to write Millroy while paddling around the Pacific in search of The Happy Isles of Oceania.

On this latter trip, Theroux happened to observe the gleaming white teeth of the villagers on Kaileuna, in the Trobriand Islands. This got him thinking about the connection between health and religion. All the other Pacific Islanders he’d seen had terrible teeth, a result of their chewing the mildly narcotic and enamel-destroying betel nut. The villagers on Kaileuna, in contrast, had fine teeth and enjoyed exceptional health. Why? Because they were Seventh-Day Adventists and adhered to the strict dietary prohibitions set out in the Bible.

"Contemplating those villagers," Theroux writes in Fresh Air Fiend, a collection of his travel writings from 1985-2000, "I began imagining a novel in which spiritual regeneration was accompanied by enormous physical vitality, the entire American package derived between the covers of the Bible."

And so was born Millroy the Magician.

The book's plot is plain enough. One sticky summer's day at the Barnstable Fair on Cape Cod, Jilly Farina, a wayward, under-developed girl of 14, becomes the carnival magician Millroy's sidekick and the source of his inspiration to transform his fellow Americans through healthy eating. (She is also our guide through this enthralling story.)

Jilly is enchanted, mystified, and sometimes frightened by Millroy’s attention. Still, she leaves her abusive alcoholic father and uncaring grandmother behind on the Cape, and together she and Millroy abandon the itinerant carnival life. To offset any suspicion about the nature of their relationship, Millroy disguises Jilly as a boy and passes her off as his son.

Millroy secures a spot on Paradise Park, Boston's most popular children's programme, and he soon becomes the show's main attraction. But before long he's fired, after a controversial broadcast.

Millroy is hardly discouraged, though. Instead, he sets up The Day One Program, a strict spiritual and dietary regime promoted in his Day One Diner in downtown Boston and later in cafeterias around the country as well as on cable TV. Remember, this is the early 1990s. By serving only those foods endorsed in the Good Book, Millroy strives for a spiritual as well as a physical cleansing of his fellow citizens. As Jilly tells us: “Often I heard his voice from the back office saying, I can make America regular once again.”

In keeping with the scatological theme – and humour – Millroy informs his acolytes that the Day One Program isn’t a church, it’s a movement.

Later in the tale, trying to explain the growing popularity of the diner, Jilly says: “Strangers had joined us . . . They were quick to believe Millroy – it happened all the faster because his message was something they could eat.”

On a less positive note, showing himself to be a man in touch with a recurrent theme in American politics, especially in this age of fast-moving foreign pandemics, Millroy delivers a TV homily decrying the ways of life outside the US. He tells his viewers: “I have seen their narrow streets and chipped sinks. I will never go overseas again. Overseas is overpriced, overwhelming, over there. It is riddled with opportunistic germs. Overseas is a health risk . . . ”

These episodes, I hope, show just how funny – and insightful – this novel remains. In today’s America, religion and health (or commonly, ill-health) dominate people’s thinking, and the spiritual realm certainly influences a lot of social policy, making Millroy a kind of ironic prophet.

Disappointingly, the incredible vitality of Millroy wanes in the book’s closing scenes. Such narrative downturns are common in many novels.

But don’t let an unsatisfactory ending prevent you from beginning this remarkable and prescient tale. Just remember: it’s a novel, not a cookbook.