Paul Theroux (PT) is an acute observer with awesome descriptive powers and able to write from almost any perspective. His capacity to evoke context(London's squatter scene, US diplomats and aid workers, American businessmen at home and abroad)is unsurpassed. Apart from many novels PT also wrote best-selling travel books, collections of reviews and short stories and even a quite good science-fiction novel called "O-Zone"(1986).
This reader found "A Dead Hand" hard to finish to the end because of the suffocating, adulatory writing style of the alter ego author, prompting memories of PT's rather awful "Millroy the Magician".
Since 1968, when his second novel "Fong and the Indians" was published, PT has been fascinated by India and Indians. He has portrayed V.S. Naipaul twice, positively in the early 1970s, very negatively almost three decades later. To date, about ten of PTs books of different genres have focused on India. In his novels, Americans visiting India often succumb to this dirty, noisy, smelly, rat- and germ-infested subcontinent, by ignoring the gap between privilege and destitution.
The raconteur of this novel is a middle-aged US globetrotting travel writer with writer's block ("a dead hand"). Early in the novel he describes rich American ladies as vulnerable to falling victim to a goddess complex. In Calcutta he is contacted by the enchanting, mysterious Mrs. Merrill Unger, a fellow American, who seeks his help in a murder case. They meet. They hardly discuss the case, but Mrs. Unger, a major entrepreneur and philanthropist clad in Indian dress takes instant control of the sorry travel writer's life by enchanting him first, massaging him in the tantric tradition the next day, then taking him to dinner to a shop serving only cooked green vegetables and brown rice. No salt or spices, no fat, no meat. He is smitten beyond rescue. And greater enchantments follow...
Has PT run out of themes? Is he recycling earlier work? Does PT still eat hamburgers and steak or has he been on yoghurt, brawn, green vegetables, brown rice and nuts for decades? Is this novel a warning or more propaganda? What bothers this reader is repetitiveness in PT's writings on the subject of food, because where have we read this before? Dr. Lauren Slaughter in "Half Moon Street"(1984), serial killer Parker Jagoda in "Chicago Loop"(1990) and the prophet of pure, healthful food glorified in "Millroy the Magician"(1996)all performed rather crazily after indulging in such weird diets for extended periods of time.
As for Mrs. Unger's murder mystery, towards the end of Part 1 the book's raconteur receives evidence in the form of a small hand in a plastic bag. Another "dead hand".
For readers the novel's main problem is that it is written from the point of view of a boring, intrusive, feeble, dissembling male, hard to bond with. But he is Paul Theroux's alter ego. They meet face to face in chapter 9 when the raconteur's name is finally dropped, Jerry Delfont (JD). JD shivers at the prospect of meeting this devious Theroux character, who is reputed to use each and every contact and meeting as material for his books. Like Howard from the US Calcutta consulate, PT is curious to learn more about the saintly Mrs. Unger and JD is a prime source... As for Paul Theroux, his cameo appearance is evidence of his penchant for living a double life: if his career had taken an early wrong turn, PT would have been Jerry.
For readers to find out about Mrs. Unger's true objectives, it is necessary to suffer through a book written by an a disciple, a follower. It is the account of the only kind of person she would trust and allow to come close, a desperate believer in a saint, a magician to save at least a small part of horrible India .