This is the latest from Paul Theroux, the renowned travel writer whose travel writing I have regretfully never read. Having never encountered his fiction either, I was banking on Theroux’s stellar reputation when I purchased his new novel in hardcover. Unfortunately, however, The Lower River, was a bit of a disappointment. Theroux’s phenomenal writing ability saved the novel from abandonment, but ultimately, its flaws zapped the enjoyment out it.
Ellis Hock is having a late-life crisis. At sixty-two, Hock’s marriage has ended, his business has failed, and his daughter has essentially disowned him. Finding rare moments of happiness in the company of a friend-of-a-friend’s pet python, Hock reminisces about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, the most joyful time in the nearly elderly man’s life. Impulsively, Hock buys a plane ticket and takes off for what he believes will be a rejuvenating visit to Malabo, the remote Malawian village he once served as a volunteer.
As it happens, the visit doesn’t go according to plan. The villagers are starving, the school Hock assisted in constructing is in shambles, and the young village chieftain is a tyrant. Hock quickly realizes his former paradise has entrapped him, and he must orchestrate a plan of escape if he is to survive. Coupled with Theroux’s skilled prose, it is this question of whether or not Hock makes it out of Africa that kept me reading until the end.
The most disappointing aspect of this novel concerns Theroux’s beat-you-over-the-head use of symbolism. As any fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald knows, proper use of symbolism can transform a piece of fiction into something truly transcendent; but wielded poorly, it can be insulting to the reader. The symbol most detrimental to the work is Zizi, the sixteen-year-old attendant assigned to fulfill Hock’s every desire, representative of Africa’s innocence and potential during Hock’s Peace Corps days. Zizi is used so strictly as a symbol that she ceases to exist as a believable character. Not only is she devoid of a distinct personality, but her actions toward Hock are implausible, and quite honestly, a little creepy.
What is done effectively, however, is Theroux’s scathing criticism of the celebrity-endorsed charity culture that supports many Africans’ basic needs. Sympathetic everymen from more economically robust countries provide the monetary support for well-intentioned charities to orchestrate helicopter drops of food onto starving mobs of Africans, a public that is resentful of the treatment but simultaneously needing the provisions. The result is a violently embittered populace, champing at the bit to take advantage of Hock, the vacationing American with pockets stuffed with kwacha notes (i.e. money).
Despite its flaws, I am glad I read The Lower River. I learned a great deal about Malawi, a country I previously knew nothing about, and am now motivated to compare Paul Theroux’s fiction to his much revered travel writing.