The Lower River, Paul Theroux, Published Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012

Book Review By: Daniel Brown

Paul Theroux may best be known as America’s most engaging travel writer; the books that first brought him to my attention were The Great Railway Bizarre and The Old Patagonian Express, which he wrote almost four decades ago.  Like Joan Didion, Theroux’s career includes writing both non-fiction and fiction, and his senses of place, landscape, weather, and character of both people and their environments are exemplary. A bit of a curmudgeon Theroux’s cynicism has increased as the world got smaller and as first world idealism began to morph into multinational greed and local corruption in emerging countries.   In these aspects, Theroux’s writing very much parallels that of V.S Naipaul; their friendship and its breech is a matter of record, yet their sensibilities remain remarkably similar.  Joan Didion also addresses these themes in much of her work, as well.

Theroux’s newest novel, The Lower River, a small masterpiece, might be said to pick up where Naipaul’s A Bend in The River, left off, well over 40 years ago.  Both writers have an intense understanding of the abuses of power and its corruptions, which have made newer countries in Africa so problematic in their development. That so little has changed between the publishing of these two novels is a damning statement on character itself, and what happens when economic aid is wrapped in cynicism and greed.

Theroux’s narrator in The Lower River, Ellis Hock, is living in a Boston suburb (Medford, Massachusetts, where Theroux hails from), and Hock’s business and marriage are both falling apart. He longs for the seeming simplicity of a village in Malawi, where he once lived and worked as a member of the peace core, helping build a school.  So he decides to return.

Upon his arrival after a journey, which is brilliantly described by Theroux, everything seems the same, on the surface of things.  He is greeted with respect, and remembered by a few of the elders, and known by some of their children, one of whom is now the Village Elder. Hock is made to feel that he is a special Elder himself, until he begins to notice that the main motive for the seeming hospitality is his money.  Set up in a hut of his own, with a village women to supply any of his needs, over time, Hock begins to understand that he is being held hostage, and that when his money runs out, he will be of no further use, but will not be sent home.  A subplot involves a local woman with whom Hock was involved during his Peace Corps stay, through whose help, Hock will eventually escape.

When he visits the school that he helped build, it is a total ruin, reflecting its fleeting use, and the school symbolizes the destruction of all that Hock remembers as good in the village.  His western romanticism is challenged and fails; all he wants is to escape with his life.  The network of spies throughout the villages is brilliantly explored, as are some local customs, such as a dance, that Hock accidentally sees from the window of his hut in the middle of the night, which he realizes is a dance of his death.  His ability to handle snakes, which he learned in this village 40 years ago, is partly what saves him, as the villagers are afraid of them and their symbolic meaning in their culture.   Again, Theroux introduces these ideas to show the clash of cultures, and how Africa’s life under the surface of things has combined with certain first world cynicism and greed that together represent nearly total evil.  Hock loses his romantic sensibility, along with his money, and learns that the life for which he has longed may have been fake all along.

How he escapes is part of the novel’s fun, so I shall not reveal it, but The Lower River is one of Theroux’s greatest achievements as a writer, in a career that now spans 40 years.  His last novel, Blinding Light, although much longer and set in South America, is almost as equally dark in its assumptions and reading of the failures of the economic development which was once the great hope of America for peoples living in post colonialist countries.


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