The Lower River
Paul Theroux (Nyasaland/Malawi 1963-1965)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
PAUL THEROUX HAS HAD A LONG and storied career. After collaborating with Moses on the travel sections of the Old Testament, he then wrote a novel about the writing of Tristram Shandy, which he witnessed, before following up with a non-fiction book retracing the retracing of his quinquireme voyage from Nineveh to distant Ophir, scrimshawing notes the whole way. Later, he had a tragic falling out with both Johnson and Bierce concerning ‘pled’ versus ‘pleaded’ before shaking hands with Mr. & Mrs. Lech Walesa, all drunk, at the marriage of the maharani of East Timor. In the same calendar year. While contributing to Smithsonian. Or something like that.
I believe that The Lower River is the fourth book I’ve reviewed by Theroux in the past five years, which annoys me. Not because I don’t like reviewing books by Theroux, but rather I’ve reached an age where I now know I truly can’t count on anything but death, taxes, and that Paul Theroux will have a new book out next year. I am wildly envious of his production. Now, with The Lower River, I’m also envious of one of his books.
I’ve been gorging on reviews of The Lower River. I do this whenever the tectonic plates of my literary bullshit meter have been so rattled by the quality of a book that I say to myself, ‘My god, that was good. I hope other people have noticed it, too.’ This hasn’t happened very often. Jennifer Egan’s The Goon Squad did it to me (Pulitzer), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Pulitzer), J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (Nobel), Jose Saramago’s Blindness (Nobel), all did, too. Books like Farewell to Arms, As I Lay Dying, Cannery Row, The Things They Carried; all of these novels moved me in this way, though their authors had already grabbed their brass rings.
I don’t think Theroux will win the Pulitzer for this book, though he deserves it. The problem with the Pulitzer is that there’s only one of the damned thing, but when they give it, they’ll give it to anybody. That good books occasionally win it, as everyone knows, is completely arbitrary.
Theroux has done a few things that will make his selection difficult, if not impossible. For starters, he has written a marvelous book; that alone will likely prove insurmountable. Secondly, he has dared to portray contemporary black Africa in a sweepingly negative light, which is generally regarded about as well as a Mel Gibson anti-Semitic tirade, even if parts of Africa deserve it. Lastly, every page of this book quietly mocks Western paternalism toward Africa, especially the white liberal sort. This will subconsciously offend nearly everyone who has the necessary interest and disposable income to purchase and read The Lower River, though they won’t be able to explain why. That includes the Pulitzer committee.
Here are the bones of the story: Ellis Hock, dullish white male has successfully reached an upper middle class retirement by running his father’s clothing store and taking no chances whatsoever. The ironic payoff of having ‘hocked’ himself in exchange for American security is that his wife divorces him and his puerile adult daughter asks for her inheritance. Alone, aging, and confronting the failure of his life despite having followed all the rules, Ellis does what most of us RPCVs do at least a few times a day: he recalls his years in the Peace Corps as the happiest in his life. Unlike many of us, he gets on a plane and returns to Malawi’s Lower River region, and his village there, Malabo.
Though forty years have passed, Hock is immediately remembered; he was the only Peace Corps Volunteer to serve in Malabo, stayed for four years, and caught snakes with his bare hands. But AIDS, economic depression, and time have changed the village guard. After an initial homecoming, Hock finds himself in a nightmare of greed, bullying, intimidation, and eventually imprisonment, which becomes so intense he wonders if death is his only escape.
The Lower River is a taut, gripping page turner that while set in Africa, transcends place to tell a story about humanity’s darkness. The second half of the book is an apocalyptic riff along the lines of Blood Meridian. This novel could be set anywhere in the world right now; it could easily be set in America. The ingredients are wealth disparity and envy. Hock has money, the villagers want it. They know he feels guilty about their poverty and use it against him; when his patience with them wears out, they poison, wound, and restrain him.
“A thud like that of a woman bopping her pestle into a mortar woke him in the darkness one night some days later,” Theroux writes from Hock’s increasingly confined mental state; this passage a good example of the heightened sensory experience that permeates the book. “[It pulsed] under his hut, the very soil jarred by its steady beat. He felt the thud in his body, prodding him, and was then wide awake. He walked to the window and the thudding entered his feet. Seeing nothing, he went to the door and as always was amazed by the crystalline brightness of the stars, some blobby, some pinpricks, their milky light shimmering on the leaves of the trees, the starry glow on the bare ground coating it with fluorescence.”
I suppose the only thing I really wonder about The Lower River is if anyone who has not lived in an African village will be able to appreciate the care Theroux has put into rendering his African village. That he also served in a similar village in Nyasaland/Malawi has been pointed out by every reviewer; that his experience there is clearly separate from the art of this book has not.
In its advance praise, Booklist rolled out the wholly expected and exceedingly lazy comparison to Conrad and Greene. One might as well say something tastes like chicken. The Lower River is really Stephen King’s Misery meets Krakauer’s Into the Wild meets Waugh’s A Handful of Dust meets the very best of McCarthy, Saramago, and Coetzee exploring man’s ability to treat other men like slaves or worse. Yes, this book is set in Africa, and yes, it is about a man who is white and people who are injuring him who are black. But really, it has nothing much special to do with those things. The story would be just as successful if it was about a Midtown banker in Appalachia, and likely much harder to criticize.
In a good sign that the book might receive it’s due, the harshest critic so far, Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times (who gave it a C-) seems to have taken down-or had taken down-her wholly negative review of Theroux’s good book. These things happen on those rare occasions when someone has recognized that she has embarrassed herself. Her sloppy review (she mentions that Hock ran a men’s clothing store, then uses the unfortunate phrase ‘unravels his ties’ with no pun intended soon after) is a fine example of agitprop, accusing Theroux of relying on ‘stale tropes’ by relying on all the stale gender studies tropes herself. I’ve tweeted Kellogg to ask what happened to her review, but haven’t yet heard back. I’m surprised the LA Times would allow such a mulligan.
The Lower River isn’t perfect. The deus ex machina ending is taken directly from The Road, and Theroux has a tendency to make words like ‘bopping’ and ‘blobby’ coexist alongside ‘crystalline’ and ‘fluorescence.’ Then there is a bigger question of whether an African village extra-wartime could abuse a white man in this way. That, of course, isn’t a question about the writing, but about the nature of humanity. Theroux’s take here is very dark. As an Amazon ‘one-star’ reviewer wrote, “The book was a real downer. If you want a book that describes misery, filth, fear, and sense of entrapment then this is the book for you.” In my opinion, that reviewer got everything right but the star count.
Paul Theroux (Nyasaland/Malawi 1963-1965), author of many well-regarded books, is the greatest writer the Peace Corps has produced.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) latest novel, Mule, is at Warner Bros.