Paul Theroux’s novel, The Lower River is his most direct use of his Peace Corps experience. Paul’s first three novels: Waldo, Fong and the Indians, and Girls at Play all were East Africa based, but not about the Peace Corps. Girls at Play, set at a girls’ school in western Kenya, has a ‘Peace Corps character,’ and unhappy, Midwest woman. I believe this is the first use of a ‘Peace Corps character’ in a work of fiction. (Mary-Ann Tyrone Smith’s (Cameroon 1965-67) Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman published in 1987, is the first novel about a Peace Corps Volunteers.)
In his collection of nonfiction pieces, Sunrise with Seamonsters (1986), Paul republished a few of his essays that focused on the agency and Africa, and how he was kicked out of the Peace Corps.
Theroux wrote a wonderful ‘peace corps’ short story “White Lies” first published in Playboy in 1979. I republished it in a collection of fiction by RPCV entitled Living On The Edge, (Curbstone 1999 ). The story does not name the Peace Corps, but is about a young American in Malawi, teaching at a British secondary school. Paul also wrote a very creative nonfiction piece “The Lepers of Moyo” about his “summer project” as a PCV when he taught English at a Catholic leprosarium in Ntakataka, Malawi and met up with a wacky American woman named Birdie who dressed up as a nun and goes around naked under the habit. That story was published in Granta #48 in the summer of 1994. You should look it up.
There are also longer fictional accounts of his Peace Corps experience in his two novels: My Secret History and My Other Life.
That said, The Lower River is Theroux’s first novel that uses as material his Peace Corps tour. Or better said, it is a novel about an RPCV who returns to his host country. It is a terrific read. For RPCVs who has “gone home” there are many echoes that ring true. Tom Wolfe wrote, ‘you can’t go home again’…but if you go home to Africa…watch out!
The plot simply is how a 62-year-old man leaves his failed marriage and his failing business (a clothing store) to return to Malawi where he once was a PCV. As a Volunteer, he had lived in a small village without electricity or running water. He had built a school, and there in Africa, he had “found love and respect.” It was the happiest time of his life.
Now, returning to Malawi, he finds poverty and AIDS and HCNs struggling to survive. Before long, the lives of the Africans ensnare him. That’s the core of the novel. Is this Paul’s conclusion about the work of the Peace Corps?
The book is packed with references of real events of that time and place. I got caught up, for example, in the main character remembering Emperor Haile Selassie’s trip to Malawi in August 1965. Paul was a PCV at the time and would have witnessed the celebration. He has pulled back those recollections to use in the novel. There is a lot of 1960 African references in this novel. It is ‘material’ that he had hung onto and brought back full circle. Nothing is wasted on a writer.
There is something else that is true of those early years overseas. Paul is asked how his Malawi Peace Corps experience informed his novel. He replied: “A person should join the Peace Corps to learn something not to teach–and should come away from the experience with some wisdom, not having changed anyone, but more enlightened. The world used to be disconnected–no cellphones, no computers, no Internet. This made for cultural immersion. I did not make a phone call in the six years I was in African in the 1960’s–that was great because I had to come to terms with the culture and learn the language. I was the better for being utterly out of touch.”
Also, and rather fascinating, at the creative core of the novel is Theroux’s own brush with danger that must have sparked this plot. When he was a PCV he met a friendly couple who invited him to visit their remote village. He agreed, only to realize later that they wouldn’t let him leave the village. He only got away when a stranger driving through the village, spotted him, and helped him escape.
See what a writer can do with a nugget of experience? Enough to build a fast-paced narrative. Well, you can if you are you are another Paul Theroux.