The Lower River
Published: June 19, 2012
Paul Theroux. The Lower River.
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
As reviewed by Ted Odenwald
Ellis Hock, the central figure in Paul Theroux’s novel, The Lower River, tries to recreate an idyllic period of his life by returning to a remote village in Malawi, where, nearly 40 years earlier, he had created his own paradise. His life now, as both a family man and a haberdasher, has crumbled: his business is lost; his wife, having intercepted intimate, though harmless, text messages between Hock and numerous wives of his clients, accuses him of cheating and divorces him; his daughter, afraid that he will abscond with her entitlements, demands her inheritance immediately. Hock’s only solace appears to be the village of Malabo, his personal Eden, where he had learned to love Africa, its people, and its simple old-world life. Having extended his two-year tour of duty with the Peace Corps to four years, he had dedicated himself to building a school and educating the young people in order to help them break the cycle of ignorance and poverty. His return, however, is disastrous, as he must live in despair among the desolate remains of his efforts.
Having developed an expertise in identifying, understanding, and handling snakes, Hock cautions a Massachusetts woman, who has been sleeping next to her pet python, that its odd behavior is evidence of its preparation to devour her. Her naivete has nearly caused her to be killed. Ironically, Hock exhibits a similar degree of naivete as he places himself in a world that fully intends to devour him. His first warning should be the appearance of Malabo; everything—the buildings, the landscape, and the people–all appear to be in a state of decay. The enthusiastic, optimistic, industrious natives that he recalls are now sullen, withdrawn, mistrusting, and avaricious. The apparent respect afforded him now is clearly based on his wealth: everything he does for them has an exorbitant price; every need that he has costs him dearly. There are constant threats from teenaged thugs, orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, who steal, cheat, and menace. He is watched carefully, exploited, and even robbed by Festus Manyenga, a self-appointed village tyrant, who insures that the people of Malabo remain impoverished, ignorant, and dependent upon his meager “generosity.” In addition, the “Agency,” a western based organization purports to be in Africa for humanitarian reasons, but in fact is making a fortune by misappropriating funds and goods, engaging in hostage trading, and exploiting Africa’s natural resources. Indeed, a great deal of devouring is taking place, but Hock is slow to realize its dangers.
Hock’s “journey” is one of disintegration. Virtually each point in the plot presents a new level of disillusionment. Upon his arrival in Malawi, he encounters a former acquaintance, who has become a shell of the man he had been—a grim omen accompanying the desiccated landscape, the dilapidated homes and public buildings, and the dissolute inhabitants. Hock’s inflated sense of self-importance, based upon earlier successes, is heightened by the expressions of homage from Manyenga; however, he eventually sees through the fawning behavior, recognizing that his main attribute for these people is his money. Ironically, the skill that best serves him is his ability to handle snakes—a skill that earns him the admiration of the locals. He uses the snakes to defend himself by holding them aloft, as if he were a pagan priest, warding off the increasingly hostile natives. Hock’s reliance upon individuals to help him escape his virtual confinement fails repeatedly. One man takes Hock’s money, promising to drive him to the safety of a distant city, only to betray him to the village “dictator.” The young woman, who has been assigned to be his personal servant (with the implied purpose of being his mistress), does, in fact, risk a perilous night journey to seek assistance, only to be savagely beaten by local thugs. The humanitarian “Agency” adds to Hock’s nightmare, ignoring his pleas for help and plotting to have him held as a hostage for ransom.
The most exciting sections of the novel are Hock’s desperate attempts to flee Malabo. Theroux captures the terror and frustration of his exhausted protagonist, who is gradually learning how little he knows about the threatening world that had once been his Eden.
While this is not the most uplifting of works, The Lower River presents an excellent delineation of a character whose optimistic and almost quixotic hopes are dashed by a world which he no longer knows. The images of the third world setting are depressing—yet powerful.
Ted Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 42 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.
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