THE LOWER RIVER

By Paul Theroux

336 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25

By PATRICK McGRATH

Patrick McGrath’s new novel, “Constance,” will be published next spring.

Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River” concerns an American named Ellis Hock who decides to return to Africa after an absence of forty years. Life has become tiresome to him but there’s a village in Malawi where he’d once been happy and useful, during his Peace Corps days, and he wants to be useful again. So he prepares to say goodbye to his failing menswear store in Medford, CT, and his embittered ex-wife, and his grasping, heartless daughter.

But before Ellis Hock has even left the US he hears about a woman in the next town who takes her rock python to bed with her. Hock knows snakes. They will figure large in what follows. This python has been behaving oddly, flattening itself beside its owner, the length of her sleeping body. Hock knows what’s going on, the snake’s getting ready to eat her. It’s a faintly comical indication of what will happen to him. He’ll find himself being consumed by the people in the village he’d once loved.

Ellis Hock won’t be the first hopeful traveler in literature to find himself in this sort of predicament. Close to the end of Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust” a hapless Englishman called Tony Last is lost deep in the Amazonian jungle with an obsessed old man who makes him read aloud constantly from the works of Dickens. When the rescue party comes through, Tony Last is unconscious in his tent, and the old man says nothing about him. The rescuers move on empty-handed. Ellis Hock suffers a similar fate, but in the end it’s not the foible of a mad Dickensian that threatens to destroy him, it’s Africa-—a word he himself calls “grand and meaningless… just his code word for the Lower River.” (p.36)

Paul Theroux knows Africa. An intrepid traveler, he’s written vivid accounts of the continent, and, too, of his journeys in Asia, in Central and South America, in the Mediterranean, India, China, even the seacoast of Britain. He’s also written what is reckoned by some to be the finest account of a writer by another writer, “Sir Vidia’s Shadow,” which tells the story of his long friendship with V.S. Naipaul and its dramatic rupture in 1996. (A year ago the two men shook hands, and a celebrated literary feud was over.)

Then there’s the very considerable body of fiction. Over the course of a long and productive career-—this is his twenty-ninth novel-—Theroux has set his stories in many and various locations, and never lost the travel writer’s eye for the hard, clear, material detail of the world. “The Lower River” is no exception. Once Ellis Hock reaches Africa the story is saturated with the sights, sounds and smells of the country. Arriving in Blantyre, a city in southern Malawi, he experiences “the peculiar hum of scorched eucalyptus, the dustiness of dead leaves, the fields chopped apart by rusty mattocks to release the sharpness of bruised roots and red earth, all of it stinking with ripeness and decay…” (p.49)

He arranges to travel to his old village, Malabo, where the headman is called Festus Manyenga. Hock finds that he’s still remembered in these parts. He’s the mzungu, the white man, who built the school. En route to Malabo he pays for the paraffin required by a group of villagers to burn a dead crocodile; it’s not the last thing he’ll be required to pay for. And still there are snakes in this compromised paradise: “… it was an oiliness, a hanging odor of a decaying nest, the hot eggy stink… a black-lipped mamba. He prodded it, let it whip and coil …” (p.87)

There’s nothing for him to do in Malabo. The school is in ruins and there’s no hope of rebuilding it. He soon feels invisible, superfluous. The villagers want him to stay however, and for this reason alone, that he has money. A first faint whisper of disquiet is heard. If he takes a step outside his hut, the whole village is aware of it. He can’t walk back to Blantyre, it’s too far. The only transport is a motorbike, but it belongs to Festus Manyenga. He visits a woman, Gala, whom he’d known well in his youth. She tells him: “They will eat your money… When your money is gone, they will eat you.” (p.123) As his world closes in on Ellis Hock, desperation enters the narrative.

It’s here, about halfway through the novel, that an adroit switch in tempo and perspective occurs. The plot quickens, and the wider thematic context of the book comes into view. In an attempt to get to safety Hock appropriates Festus’s motorbike, reaches the Lower River, descends it a few miles in a canoe, and fetches up at the village of children. It’s a nightmare: “… a vision of pure menace, stupid unreasonable children, and too many of them… feral and damned.” (p.172) Some of them are infected with AIDS. “If they bite you, you will die,” he’s told. (p.178) It seems that having escaped captivity in a small dusty village, he’s found himself in a much worse prison, Africa itself: a dirty and chaotic place run by sick irrational children.

He reaches the compound of L’Agence Anonyme, to which veiled reference has been made earlier in the story. In the contemporary Africa of Theroux’s novel, this antiseptic fortress in the “charity zone” (p.206) might well be the heart of darkness. It’s an organization to which the West has outsourced its effort to provide aid to a hungry continent. That effort, for all its helicopters and rock stars, has failed. “You insult us with food, you throw it to us like animals. We are not your monkeys now. Take him away!”-—shouts Festus Manyenga, enraged. (p.319) What had once been good-—the Africa Ellis Hock remembers from his youth-—has disappeared, replaced by a corrupt and hellish place in which tough young Africans talk a kind of American street patois and think of nothing but the exchange value of watches and motorbikes, and also of human beings. Ellis Hock is one of them. He’s a man with a price on his head now, in effect a kind of slave.

“The Lower River” is riveting in the story it tells and provocative in its depiction of Africa, with its undertones of slavery and cannibalism, savagery and disease. Theroux exposes the redundancy of Hock’s Peace Corps paternalism, his “… sense of responsibility, almost the conceit of ownership.” (p.36) That sense of responsibility, and Hock’s modest contribution to the welfare of a people of whom he was once genuinely fond, has been replaced by a new, harsher paternalism, operated by cold-hearted contractors living apart in impregnable compounds. At a certain point Hock says to Festus Manyenga: “I have to leave. I’m going home.” And Festus replies: “This is your home, father…” (p.142) This would seem to be the tragedy, or perhaps the punishment for the great crime of assuming ownership: unlike the contractors, the rock stars, the consular officials and the rest, Ellis Hock made Africa his home and now he has to live in it.