I picked this one – The Lower River by Paul Theroux – off the library shelf after a quick look at the jacket flap. I’ve never read Theroux – not even The Mosquito Coast – but the premise intrigued me. Man (Ellis Hock) in late-life crisis returns to Malawi forty years after he’d served there as a Peace Corps volunteer. Themes of time, change and dashed idealism resonate with me.
I found it fairly absorbing. Read it in a couple of days. But it’s not a great book. I couldn’t get a handle on Hock’s inner life after his return to the village where he had worked – it was sketched, but just that. The village which he had left with a new school and a positive outlook had collapsed into lethargy and a culture of deep dishonesty, but the reason why is never really explained or explored, a choice which leaves us teetering on the edge of simplistic caricatures.
And the ending….oh, my. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a bizarrely abrupt ending in a book aspiring to this level of serious writing. Did I say “bizarre?” Yup. Bizarre. Not the incidents that comprise those last two pages, but their rather extreme suddenness and the characters’ quick exits. I’m not sure how to explain it. It was just..odd. Lazy? Tight deadline? Perhaps.
I didn’t hate it. It does drag, but that’s part of the point, and the gradual awareness of entrapment is well-done. There are interesting set-pieces, some of them rather horrifying, like an extended Lord of the Flies stay in a settlement of orphaned children visited in a painfully hilarious way by celebrities come to distribute aid. The effect of the whole book is of unrelenting hopelessness, as everyone is compromised and every person, segment of society, insider and outsider is, it appears helpless. And perhaps that is simply Theroux’s vision of Africa..of life. That our good intentions are ultimately self-serving acts doomed to fail in the context of persistent, deep and endemic human grasping. But even so, there is a contrast drawn between the hope Hock felt and the way he experienced the village four decades ago and the way they all live on earth – all of them, including him – now. It’s not cheerfully hopeful answer I’m looking for here, but simply an attempt to ask…why? And…really?
It’s the lack of interest in answering the “what” in any way that makes the book a puzzle – along with that awful ending.
But there are some nice pieces of writing that ring absolutely true. This was one:
He resented being captive in this flattened vegetating place, and he had come to hate the idiot wisdom of the proverbs these ragged people subjected him to. I never want to hear another proverb, he thought, or another opinion from someone so obviously doomed. If there was anything true or lasting in the village, it was in their dancing, but like so much else, this authentic expression of the past had become flat-footed. Instead of grieving for himself, he lamented the village that had disappeared utterly, its school buildings fallen, its well gone dry, its spirit vanished; lamented the evaporated essence of a place that he knew from its bitter residue of dust, like the skid of a footprint of one who had fled for good. Malabo had become an earlier, whittled-down version of itself, recalling a simpler, crueler time, of fetishes and snake doctors and chicken-blood rituals.
As I read those first sentences of that paragraph, I felt as if this was not about a Malawi village, but about when and where I live, too.
There’s another theme here, and one that Theroux clearly tended to at the beginning and even in the conception of the book, but neglected enough for it to be unfortunately forgotten. When Hock leaves the United States, his marriage is over, his only child has no use for him, and his business is gone. He makes an effort to contact one fellow – the single friend he thinks might be interested in what he’s about to do – and tells him where he’s going. It’s important to Hock that someone know.
When he arrives in Africa, he’s similarly pleased when his presence is noted, when he senses that he has a role and a place.
But as time wears on and events take their deadening turn, he feels less and less like someone, and sinks. This distresses him and he can find hope only, in the end, in one villager who has cared for him. His hopelessness and utter desolation at being used, abused and threatened by the villagers is lifted by his understanding of this young woman’s care. He isn’t nowhere and he isn’t no one.
But then again…when Hock has been stripped of everything he has – of really everything – and they have taken all they can and all they want, he feels, not ultimate abandonment, but freedom.
Obviously, it’s there in the book or I wouldn’t be writing about it. But it’s hidden, which is unfortunate, because I do think those themes of identity, attachment, connection and abandonment would have made this book far more powerful had they been at the center.