Friday, April 29, 2011

The Mosquito Coast, by Paul Theroux

I've admired much of Paul Theroux's travel writing over the years, with the odd exception here and there.  I quickly lost patience with Kingdom by the Sea, his account of walking around the coastline of Great Britain, which felt to me like one interminable gripe.  It was witty and well-crafted, as all his writing is, but for heaven's sake -- if you're having such a wretched trip, call it quits and go home, or shut up about it.  Of course no travel is without its sour moments, but this read like three months of drear.

After reading The Mosquito Coast, I realise that Theroux might better have turned his failed English walkabout into fiction.  When it comes to a novel of travel gone bad, he is a genius.  Theroux's details of local flora and fauna, languages and cultures, diseases and landscapes -- all the things that make his travel writing shine -- create a vivid picture of what may be the least attractive holiday destination in the Americas.  Decades of globe-trotting have also allowed Theroux plenty of insight into his fellow travelers, which is often as interesting as watching the locals in remote places.  We all have our own reasons for leaving home, after all, and some of them are less sound than others.

Here we have Allie Fox:  brilliant but megalomaniac inventor and contrarian who decides that the United States in the early 1980s is on its last legs.  He concludes that he will save his wife and four children only by fleeing  to the jungles of Honduras, where the American rot has not set in.  By the time Allie makes this decision, however, Theroux has let on that he's not the average Joe who daydreams about life as a Thai beach-bum, or, say, the burnt-out professional who decides to emigrate to Turkey to see what life is like on the other side of the world.  Allie Fox has very definite opinions about everything, and his manic pontificating stops only during the 4 hours or so that he sleeps each night. Allie is confident that he can build the perfect life, ex nihilo.  The book's narrator is Charlie, Allie's thirteen year-old son, which was a great choice on Theroux's part.  Readers can trust Charlie, despite his youth, more than they trust Allie.  Charlie proves to be a keen observer of his father, and of the dynamics between Allie, the other family members, and the local Hondurans.  Charlie is also willing to admit to his fear and confusion as Allie establishes their first settlement deep in the Honduran jungle:
So there was always something to do, which was perhaps just as well because it took our minds off the heat and the insects. And the uncertainty, too, for though Father said confidently, "This is why I'm here," we did not know why we were, and were too scared to ask.  
Allie declares that he is there to build a fire-powered ice-making machine in the jungle.  The huge structure terrifies the locals, who mumble about his "spearmints" (their understanding of "experiments").  One of the key ingredients in his ice-maker is ammonia.  He attempts to explain the technology to them, adding that the local launch operator, Francis, already grasps the concept.  The truth of the matter -- that he's the only one who knows or cares -- eludes him:
"You can do anything with ammonia," Father said. "The ammonia clock is the most accurate timekeeping device in the world. You don't believe me? ... Listen, the tick-tock in it is the oscillation of the nitrogen atom in the ammonia molecule. Francis knows all about it, don't you?"
Francis said, "For true, Fadder."
The character of Allie's wife, whom he calls "Mother", is shadowy.  (Does Theroux even tell us her name? I don't think so.) She doesn't seem unintelligent but rather inexplicably loyal and docile as her husband drags her and the children into ever more dire straits. Allie perceives himself as the saviour of his family and the Hondurans lucky enough to meet him, and his wife and children bolster this bit of delusional bravado.

He tries to bring a chunk of ice to Indians living far in the interior, only to find that they've seen ice before -- the missionaries had brought it.  When they see Allie bearing more of the stuff, they fall down on their knees and pray.  He is enraged.  (Allie has no use for God, whom he perceives as "a hasty inventor of the sort you find in any patent office", and thus missionaries are a pestilence in his opinion.)  He sulks on the long canoe trip back, and Mother consoles him as if he were a schoolboy whose science experiment had fizzled:
It was all brilliant, she said. She was proud of him, and nothing else mattered. Father did not object. He said, "It wasn't what I expected. I didn't want that. They prayed at me, Mother... what can you do with people who've already been corrupted? It makes me mad."  
Allie is mad, all right, in both senses of the word.  His middle son, Jerry, begins to see it, and Charlie eventually notices that the locals are not looking at their father with rapt attention and admiration but with fear.  When one of Allie's schemes goes awry, he makes a radical course adjustment and steers his family into ever more desperate circumstances, convincing them that America is gone, engulfed by some apocalyptic disaster.  Yet in Honduras, he rails against the missionaries and fruit planters for their intrusions, he rails against the indigenous people for their backwardness, and he rails against the vultures, pelicans and all other forms of wildlife that he deems "scavengers".  The Indians and the vultures have no such hubris. They are more patient.  They just watch and wait.

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