It would take the lengthy pages of The New York Review of Books(June 7, 2012) to bring these two old Peace Corps African hands together, with one reviewing the other. Theroux’s book, The Lower River, is out this month from Houghton Mifflin, and here’s the basic plot:
“Ellis Hock never believed that he would return to Africa. He runs an old-fashioned menswear store in a small town in Massachusetts but still dreams of his Eden, the four years he spent in Malawi with the Peace Corps, cut short when he had to return to take over the family business. When his wife leaves him, and he is on his own, he realizes that there is one place for him to go: back to his village in Malawi, on the remote Lower River, where he can be happy again.
Arriving at the dusty village, he finds it transformed: the school he built is a ruin, the church and clinic are gone, and poverty and apathy have set in among the people. They remember him-the White Man with no fear of snakes-and welcome him. But is his new life, his journey back, an escape or a trap?”
Norm Rush begins his two-page review with a cautionary note, saying of the novel, “It’s a notable creation, but one that sits oddly in the Theroux oeuvre.”
He goes onto say, “Few writers, even those as or more prolific than Theroux, have managed to create–through the full range of their works–a voice so unified, so unwavering, so unmistakable.”
Rush thinks he has another novel of that kind, but by the end the first section of his review there is a warning shot for readers across the literary landscape as Rush writes, “The Lower River confounds.”
Rush’s review has a quick summary of the early narrative of the novel, and he tells how the main character, Ellis Hock, impulsively decides to return to Africa, to the “remote Malawian village of Malabo” where he once was a happy PCV.
Would-be RPCV writers might perk up at this point and ask themselves: How’s ol’ Paul fictionally going to handle his return to his Peace Corps site?
Well, Theroux’s protagonist finds not the Africa of his Peace Corps days. “None of what he saw from the car was lovely: the African of people, not of animals.” His old village is worse than could have been imagined. Next, he falls under the hands and control of the grandson of an his acquaintance from his Peace Corps days.
As Rush notes in his review, “Protocol forbids revealing further detail of Hock’s voyage toward the bottom of things…”
But Norm then goes onto asks this question: “What sort of story is being told in this novel?”
Rush praises the “quality of the author’s workmanship” adding, “The Lower River may be Paul Theroux’s most unnerving novel, but he would probably agree that it’s not his strongest, or his most richly developed.”
He locates Paul as a literary writer within the terrain of such great writers as Robert Stone, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad and Bob Shacochis (yes, our own Bob Schacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76).
Still, Rush is bothered: What does the novel mean? he wonders.
Well, he is not so sure. He thinks it might be an allegory, if not outright parable, about Western aid to Africa.
What then is Theroux saying? That “Western assistance programs in impoverished Africa are worthless?
No, Paul doesn’t think that, Norm knows. To get at what Theroux really believes about Africa, Rush quotes a 1995 interview he gave to Stephen Capen that shows “Theroux’s broad and humane sentiments.
Then he adds, “In 2009, he (Theroux) endorsed Peace Corps service as a life choice for young Americans. Last year he was featured speaker at the event celebrating the fifty anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps.”
Rush’s finally decides that The Lower River is a different sort of book. It is a “successful exercise in straight horror/fantasy genre writing. It was never intended to produce maxims. This is no moral to this tale, or at least no moral that would not read as an apostate’s curse, coming from Paul Theroux.”
In other words Stephen King or our own Christopher Conlon (Bostwana 1988-90) could have written the novel.
Well, that’s not so bad either.
As for Norm Rush….Well, his long awaited next novel is entitled, Subtle Bodies. It will be published in 2013. I think I’ll ask Theroux to review it for Peace Corps Writers!