In a literary culture dominated by good careerists who graduated from the same cluster of highly rated MFA programs, it’s easy to see something cherishable in a gifted oddball like Alexander Theroux. Between 1972 and 1987, Theroux published three unusual, excellent novels—Three Wogs, Darconville’s Cat, and An Adultery—that earned him good reviews and a cult following, while establishing that his reputation would never approach the bestselling fame and respectability of his brother, The Mosquito Coast author Paul Theroux. In 1999 and 2000, Theroux published short critical studies on Al Capp and Edward Gorey through the art-comics publisher Fantagraphics, which also brought out his impressionistic travelogue Estonia: A Ramble Through The Periphery and Laura Warholic, his first novel in more than 20 years.
Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth is a grumpy middlebrow who has been known to use his magazine, The Comics Journal, as a dumping ground for his own drably written but furious screeds, in which he tends to mistake rudeness for moral principle and the production of mediocre but commercially successful superhero comics for a war crime. Whatever first brought Theroux and his publisher together, it must please Groth to provide a home for a serious writer with a penchant for $10 words, not to mention a mean mouth. (One chapter of Darconville’s Cat consists entirely of a character describing the things that should be done to a heartbreaking woman, in a long list that does not include “Forgive and forget.”) And it probably tickles Theroux, who has good reason to feel underappreciated by the literary establishment, that his mammoth word-mosaics now reach the public thanks to the largesse of a publisher best known as the home of Peter Bagge’s Buddy Bradley and the multi-volume Complete Crumb Comics.
After the relatively heavy lifting of his Estonia book and the 878-page Laura Warholic, The Grammar Of Rock sounds as if it ought to be a blast. The title seems to promise a Therouxian takeoff on one of those books publishers ground out in the late ’60s for people who were starting to think of rock lyrics as “literature,” like Richard Goldstein’s sadly sincere The Poetry Of Rock and Richard Meltzer’s semi-put-on The Aesthetics Of Rock. But the book isn’t a blast, and its title is misleading. It isn’t really about rock; it’s about all popular music with lyrics, including the work of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins, Broadway show tunes, and forgotten songs from half-forgotten movies. And it’s really about any public use or misuse of language that has ever gotten up Theroux’s nose, ranging from a speech Laurence Olivier made at the 1978 Academy Awards (in which the actor “proved in one disastrous minute that, off-script, he was a doddering old fool, an uneducated wordy buffoon with no sense of language whatsoever”) to Herman Cain’s campaign one-liner about America needing “a leader, not a reader.” Theroux identifies Cain as the “founder of Godfather’s Pizza,” but though Cain always pointed to his tenure as CEO of the company to prove that he was qualified to be president, he never claimed he founded the business. That might seem like a small slip, but if an author is going to devote almost 350 pages to calling other people idiots, it would behoove him to make sure he has all his details right, especially if he’s going to grab a bazooka and chase easy targets like Cain, Neil Diamond, and Howard Cosell.
What does Theroux have to say about rock itself? While he says music is “one of the things I know I will miss most when I’m on my way out,” his ideas amount to the same thing Steve Allen said on his ’50s TV show, when he ridiculed the idea of rock lyrics as poetry by pompously reciting “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Theroux selects songs ranging from “You’re So Vain” (in which, he points out—echoing a point made better by William Sanderson’s Larry on an episode of Newhart—Carly Simon misuses the word “gavotte”) to Richard Harris’ version of “MacArthur Park” (“one of the least bearable recordings ever made”), and picks them apart, rolling his eyes over verbal infelicities and lapses in logic, without accounting for things like wit, flow, and the fact that, as Garry Trudeau once had Bob Dylan confess in Doonesbury, sometimes it feels like enough of an achievement just to get it to rhyme.
To the extent that the book is even seriously intended to say something about rock lyrics, it takes the least fruitful way of discussing its subject, and Theroux doesn’t even seem to know he’s stomping down a well-trod path, let alone a clueless, philistine one. “Am I the first to point out… how silly, how lame-brained in far too many cases, rock and roll lyrics look in cold print?” he asks, sounding like someone who thinks he must be the first Fox News genius to realize politically correct people are the real bigots. That might be the book’s apex of self-parody, if not for the part where Theroux scolds Gene Chandler for singing that the “Duke Of Earl” has a dukedom. (“A duke,” Theroux sniffs, “lives in a duchy.”) A certain amount of snobbery and meanness has always been part of Theroux’s basic equipment as a writer, but through the magic of language, he’s usually managed to be funny enough to make those qualities seem forgivable. This time, he comes across as a former eccentric who’s settled for being a crank. He may think The Grammar Of Rock is funny, but in the immortal words of the Temptations, it’s just his imagination, running away with him.