Review — THE MOSQUITO COAST by Paul Theroux (Malawi)
The Mosquito Coast
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)
Houghton Mifflin Publisher
$21.20 (paperback); $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Mark Walker (Guatemala 1971-73)
I recently came across an interview of Paul Theroux in “By the Book” in The New York Times, in which he reveals that The Mosquito Coast was his favorite most personally meaningful book. He goes on to say, “…Over a period of two years, knowing it was a great idea and plot, I wrote confidently in rainy, cold, sedate London, and it is, of course, a book set in sunny, warm anarchic Honduras,” at which point I realized that although I had seen the movie, I had never read the book! I had read all of his non-fiction works but only Kowloon Tong in the fiction genre, so I decided to finally read The Mosquito Coast.
I was also thinking about the relationship between the book and the movie while researching an article about Theroux’s fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer author and friend, Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 1965–67), who revealed in a letter directed to fellow author Tom Miller in 1986 that Jack Nicholson had been offered the lead role of Allie Fox, “…He wanted four and a half million dollars, so they got Harrison Ford. Tom – that’s what he said…” Another version of the story suggests Nicholson wouldn’t take the role since he wouldn’t be able to attend Laker home games! Either way, Harrison Ford landed the role, which gained him ever-greater notoriety in Hollywood. Although it was one of the few movies that didn’t immediately exceed the cost, Ford claimed that part of the problem was, “…that it didn’t fully enough embrace the language of the book. It may have more properly been a literary, rather than a cinematic, exercise.”
I found the book highly entertaining, a gripping adventure as well as a comic portrait of cultures at cross-purposes. The book is the story of Allie Fox, a tormented Yankee inventive genius like the Wright Brothers. He’s a Maine-born Harvard dropout, a self-taught engineer and inventor who rejected both God and the American way. Fox’s focus was to defend his four children from television, fast foods, drugs, crime and religious fanaticism. His interest in the migrant workers his employer exploits leads to the life-changing decision to pack up and take a slow boat to the jungles of Honduras, Central America.
In a breathtaking adventure story, the brilliant, but paranoid, inventor takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle, determined to build a civilization better than the one they’ve left. Fleeing from an America he sees as mired in materialism and conformity, he hopes to rediscover a purer life. But his utopian experiment takes a dark turn when his obsessions lead the family toward unimaginable danger.
Fox’s refusal to accept any reality but his own takes darker and more dangerous forms. He imposes cruel and perilous tests and punishments on his rebellious sons; he grows dishonest, and obsesses over the cultural collapse of America and begins to insist that, in his absence, America has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust, and that there may be, therefore, no alternative to his own version of reality.
The story is told from the perspective of an innocent fourteen-year-old Charlie Fox, who reveres his father, but begins to doubt him and then, ultimately, despise him at the end when he has put the family in grave danger. Upon their arrival in La Ceiba, Allie buys a settlement called “Jeronimo” and they travel up the river, where he inspires local Creoles and Zambus, the local indigenous group, to transform the overgrown settlement into a thriving community in the tradition of Henry Thoreau’s Walden Pond. He then builds a huge ice-making machine, “Fat Boy,” powered by hydrogen and ammonia and takes it further upriver to isolated indigenous groups, only to find they had been “corrupted” by missionaries. Upon his return, three armed “slaves” appear to threaten Allie’s community so he tricks them into a freezer that blows up and pollutes the local river.
Surviving the explosion, though injured, Allie takes his family down yet another river in search of a more independent way of life away from technology. After going against the flow of the river, Allie concludes that, “Mosquito Coast is a dead loss…there’s death down there…Everything broken, rotten and dead is on that stream and being pulled down to the coast…I’ve been fighting the current all along.” His two sons want to return to America, but Allie tells them that it has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust.
After passing several abandoned villages destroyed by a recent tropical storm, Allie finds that the missionaries he despised, the “Spellgoods,” had set up a mission settlement complete with landing strip and church. Incensed by the missionaries’ impact on the area, Allie blows up the airplane and generator, but is then shot by Reverend Spellgood. The family drags Allie into a jeep and heads for the coast where he dies. His family is finally able to reach La Ceiba and returns safely to America.
After Allie’s death, his son, Charlie, describes his reaction,
. . . Our boat was small, and it hung precariously on a line in the middle of the river—on air, it seemed. But I had never felt safer. Father was gone. How quiet it was here. Doubt, death, grief—they had passed like the shadow of bird’s wing brushing us. Now—after how long?—we had forgotten that shadow. We were free.
In the “By the Book” interview, Theroux claimed that Allie’s character “…was sort of homage to my father, the children the same ages and temperaments of my two boys then…” When asked in an interview for The Atlantic if the main character was, in fact, based on himself he said, “Harrison Ford played Allie Fox, not me. Allie is based on many people I know and even Pap, Huck Finn’s father.”
In my research on fellow author Moritz Thomsen (author of Living Poor), I came across a passage from Clay Morgan, a friend of Theroux, in which he says that Thomsen was, in fact, the inspiration for the main character. And in a letter from Tom Miller dated June 19th, 1993 to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer author and friend of Thomsen, Page Stegner, Miller reveals, “…as Theroux quite openly acknowledges, the seeds for ‘Mosquito Coast’ was an all-night session with Moritz talking about his unresolved feelings about his Dad…”
Theroux has never confirmed this connection, although I’ve asked, but Thomsen was a contrarian Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador where he lived for over 25 years. He wrote several books loaded with examples of new technologies he introduced to the Ecuadorian Pacific Coast, which failed, and his attempts to establish more productive communities through the formation of cooperatives also failed. The hate relationship with his father was graphically described in Thomsen’s last book, My Two Wars, so I give the claim credence although I agree with Theroux’s assertion that the main character was a compilation of various people.
Theroux’s book is excellent on so many levels and represents a serious feat of imagination which just happened to form an exceptional story on which to base a movie.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Mark Walker (Guatemala 1971-73) implemented fertilizer experiments in Guatemala and Honduras, although his most important accomplishment was his marriage to his wife, and their three children, all born in Guatemala. Following earning an MA in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas in Austin, Mark co-founded a Guatemalan development agency and then managed child sponsorship. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, won Honorable Mention in the Arizona Literary Award competition. Mark and his wife, Ligia, live in Scottsdale, Arizona close to their three children and seven grandchildren.
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As a returned Nepal PCV, I especially enjoyed the movie — filmed in Belize, and backed up by Nepalese Gurkha soldier ‘engineers’ (posted by the Brits in Belize) who don’t appear on screen but are in the credits at the end for their work making the storm scene and the destruction of the ice machine structure so vivid. “Ram. Ram. Hazur!”
–Don Messerschmidt. Nepal-2, 1963-65.
Don, Thanks for adding to the backdrop of this interesting story! The Nepalese connection is interesting since the two countries of Belize and Nepal are worlds a part with one common denominator in their history…the Brits!
My wife who is Guatemalan would have something to say about why Belize isn’t still part of her country–but that’s another story.