- The Lower River
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp.
The Lower River by Paul Theroux is a gripping and suspenseful tour of post-colonial Africa. But, proceed with caution because this is not your typical “American in Africa” story. At least not the romanticized version. Theroux, of Mosquito Coast fame, has created a literary triumph that is thematically compelling, intricately plotted, and sensorily vivid. And, as with all good art, this book is provocative – in particular for themes on greed, avarice and substantive meaning in a consumer culture.
Ellis Hock, a sixty-two year old clothier from Boston, Massachusetts is invisible in his own family. Bored and dissatisfied, it is not long before he has fallen prey to the internet and the attention he gets from other women. But technology does him in and when his wife finds the emails – the marriage is over. The business is also closing down and his twenty something, selfish and egocentric daughter wants her inheritance money NOW – just in case Hock decides to marry again. Other than his check, the daughter has no use for him.
He is alone again after almost thirty-five years examining his life. Looking back he saw that it had all been a digression – the business, marriage, children. Now at sixty-two, he had money, he had all the time in the world.
Hock is now further adrift in day-to-day life. He longs for a time when he was happy, when his life was purposeful and when he could make a difference. There is an answer – it is Africa. The Africa of his youth, of his Peace Corp days on the lower river of Malabo where he would have stayed if he had not been called back to the states due to his father’s illness. Hock had been in Africa almost four years, a near record for any foreigner in the hot, miserable, bug ridden, swampy Lower River, among the half-naked Sena people and their procrastination. Those years, the Africa years, were the happiest years of his life….In a district of small huts and half-naked people and unpaved roads—a world made out of mud—he had been content. The Lower River had become the measure of his happiness. And over the course of his life, in a deadened marriage, locked in an occupation he did not choose, the Lower River remains in Hock’s mind the way the notion of home might persist in someone else’s. He must go there now. There is nothing to hold him back.
He has a plan. And a destination. It is Malabo. He decides to leave. Sadly, he is not in communication with anyone. And there is no one to tell he is leaving for the Lower River; except curiously, his only real friend, a black man and ex-con, Royal Junkins, whom he had known since grade school. Not an intimate friend –he had none—but a close friend. Hock is touched and moved when Royal tells him he will miss him. And Hock is glad, because there is someone to care. And so Hock naively, yet confidently, departs for the Africa of old. He leaves his life behind, what there is of it, to revisit the Lower River of Malawi, the southernmost part of a southern province, the poorest part of a poor country, home of the Sena people.
Hock Ellis arrives and sets about looking for his Africa, the one of 40 years ago. He is, after all mzungu, the white man – that in and of itself makes him important. But Hock is in for an awakening; a frightening one. And herein ensues the psychologically taut and deeply pernicious beginning of a journey that one can only describe as sinister and disturbing. Westernization, greed, callousness and cannibalism come together in a frightening and desperate way that will leave Hock Ellis in an unimaginable state.
After arriving in his old village of Malabo, Hock is warmed to find that he is remembered. Hock is welcomed with open arms; he is the white man, mzungu, the American, the rich man. He is the white man who once taught at the school. He means something to them, or so he thinks. He can do good work there, or so he believes. But the passage of time and incidents show that there is nothing for him to do in Malabo. The former school is in ruins and there is no hope to rebuild. With the exception of his ability to pay for items the villagers request, he is of no use to them. The Lower River is changed and the people, the people are duplicitous.
He is warned when he comes across an old village woman he knew previously. She cautions him, “They will eat your money,” she said. “When your money is gone, they will eat you.” Soon after, Hock is awakened in the middle of the night to the beat of drums and strange rituals that he sneaks out to watch. The entire village participates in a dance, thinking he is asleep, mocking him as a white man, acting out harming him. Hock is ready to leave, but he is now under constant surveillance in the small village at the end of the world. Nobody knows he is there and no one will help him. “I have to leave,” Hock pleads. “I’m going home.” Yet, Festus Manyenga, the village chief only replies in a menacing way, “This is your home father.”
The plot is unnerving, the storytelling is brilliant. It is Paul Theroux at his finest.