O-Zone, by Paul Theroux. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 527 pp. $19.95 ``O-Zone,'' Paul Theroux's latest novel, hurtles forward in time to a murky New York City so bristling with security checkpoints that the rich hop uptown to downtown in private aircraft. It ranges to the leafy, forbidden O-Zone (the Ozarks, closed on account of a radioactive leak). It teeters on the edge of ``Landslip,'' n'ee California. The imagined scenery is as vivid as India going by the windows in Theroux's ``The Great Railway Bazaar'' and as poignantly dazzling as the Andes in ``The Old Patagonia Express.''
But most of his characters are such decadent pleasure-seekers that their voyages, though far and wide, are as shallow as they are. Moura, an upper-class New Yorker, searches for the man who fathered her son at a fertility clinic. Hooper, her tycoon brother-in-law, is after his first love, a woman he's seen on videotape. Theroux doesn't like these characters much, nor will readers. Without compelling travelers, the book doesn't live up to the sweep of its landscape, although it may achieve the author's intention: to paint a satyric picture of people for whom shopping has become a way of life. Even though they seem to be searching for love, their voyages stop short at sexual gratification.
But when Fisher, Moura's son, is kidnapped by aliens in O-Zone, Theroux unwinds a marvelous yarn. Like Job, everything Fisher feared has come upon him. He's seldom left his room in his parents' New York tower condo. He cringes from dirt and human contact. He avoids the first by wearing a helmet and face mask; the second by being obnoxious. On the other hand, his captors live off the recently radioactive land on small animals and weeds and sleep in a heap to stay warm. Even more disgusted with him than he with them, they decide to sell him to another group of aliens.
When Mr. Blue, their leader, changes his mind, it's probably the most affectionate gesture ever shown to a boy whose best friend has been his computer.
As they make their way back to New York, Fisher discovers the appeal of being needed. By New Jersey, he is a new person. He's done what the old travel axiom says happens: Traveling a long way, he's met up with himself.
Moura and Hooper have gotten what they wanted, which seems paltry by comparison. The contrast is instructive, but Theroux has followed their paths too long, making ``O-Zone'' longer - and nastier - than it needs to be.