What's a guy like him doing in a city like this?

A STRANGER IN THE EARTH By Marcel Theroux Harcourt Brace 279 pp., $23

Horace Littlefair, the naive hero of Marcel Theroux's debut novel, isn't really a stranger on earth, or anywhere else. In fact, he's wonderfully familiar.

Everyone comes into the world as a Horace; it's just that he's remained a Horace for so much longer than most.

You can't blame him: He's been raised in seclusion by his communist grandfather in the little town of Great Much, a village famous only for having refused to admit plague victims in the 14th century. (Current residents still proudly boast, "Not in my graveyard!")

"The technological innovations of subsequent centuries skirted Great Much just as the plague had," the narrator notes. And so when his grandfather dies, Horace decides the time has come to see the world beyond the village shop and its antique tins of Spam.

With an offer to work at his great uncle's suburban newspaper in London, Horace dons his grandfather's 50-year-old tweedy clothes and jaunts out into the 20th century.

"First time in London?" a taxi driver asks.

"How did you know?"

"Just a guess."

There's enough of Evelyn Waugh in this comic novel to cheer lovers of satire who've been waiting for a suitable heir. The author, son of the essayist and travel writer Paul Theroux, has created a classically eccentric cast of characters.

Nothing alarms the infinitely congenial, endlessly victimized Horace. For him, entering London is like tumbling down the rabbit's hole. He quickly falls in love with a Polish shop girl, but then inadvertently gets her deported by sending her to an immigration sting.

Although the newspaper owner is his uncle - great uncle, he reminds the jealous staff - everyone bullies him around. "Can you think of another word for France?" one writer demands.

Even his dull gardening column enrages a burly reader, who storms the office and punches him in the face.

"Horace didn't understand the haphazard alchemy that seemed to govern his new world. How could he succeed?" the patient narrator asks.

He's the proverbial butterfly that causes a hurricane 10,000 miles away. A profile he writes on a local centenarian entangles him with a crusade to save urban foxes, a politician bent on salvaging his career from a sex scandal, and a plot to resist the European Union.

To straightforward Horace, the machinations of this modern world seem endlessly absurd. Seeing a TV set for the first time, he notices that "reporters look as though they'd been abducted from respectable jobs and forced to participate in the making of the newscast."

Despite its comedy, this is a story marked by moments of anguish. As he descends into the hellish world of big-city crime, drugs, and corruption, Horace's innocence puts him in harm's way, but his concern for others eventually saves him.

Theroux shares that basic sense of humanity. The acerbic wit he fires at politics and journalism is tempered by a tender compassion for his central characters. That breadth keeps the novel from developing the steely surface that renders some satire tedious. This is a smart debut from a writer who's no stranger to comedy.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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