Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Theroux's latest serious, suspenseful
American writer Paul Theroux has for years kept up a book-a-year pace, alternating novels with colourful accounts of exotic travel.
(His name is unexpectedly appearing in gossip columns these days, now that his nephew Justin has become actress Jennifer Aniston's fiancé.)
As the laureate of lengthy train trips, Paul has often worked on his next piece of fiction while riding the rails. You get the impression that he never wastes a moment or an opportunity.
Little wonder then that the genesis of his engrossing new novel can be traced back to a 2001 visit to Africa. Just turned 60 at the time, Theroux travelled from Cairo to Cape Town, a remarkable journey recorded in his memoir Dark Star Safari (2003). Part of the trip included a return to Malawi, where he taught school for the Peace Corps back in the early 1960s.
In The Lower River, 62-year-old Ellis Hock reaches a critical stage in his life. His men's wear store in Meford, Mass., is losing business, and his wife Deena has turned on him because of flirtatious emails he has sent to female customers, apparently to combat boredom.
For over 35 years, Hock has looked back fondly on the time he spent in the Peace Corps. He helped build, and then taught in, a school in a region of Malawi called the Lower River.
"As a volunteer teacher, in this district of small huts and half-naked people and unpaved roads -- a world made out of mud -- he had been content.... No telephone, only the weekly mail delivery, and sometimes an out-of-date newspaper, already yellow from age, the news irrelevant, overtaken by newer, greater trivia. There was nothing to fear."
It seems time for Hock to sell his business, leave his wife, and pay a return visit to Malabo, the village where he had lived. He decides to do just that.
Theroux has written about Malawi (in East Africa) before -- Jungle Lovers, his fourth novel, published in 1971, is one of his funniest. In The Lower River, he plays it serious and straight, building suspense through his natural storytelling skills. It is a more satisfying work than his previous two novels, the biting satire Blinding Light (2005) and the playful mystery A Dead Hand (2009).
Hock returns to Malabo and finds it different, disappointing. The school has crumbled and been abandoned. The village has no electricity, meaning 12 hours of equatorial darkness. It is dusty, terribly hot, surrounded by bush.
He meets Manyenga, a kind of local overlord, who has heard of him and ingratiates himself, but it quickly becomes clear that he is interested only in Hock's money.
Hock soon sees it was a mistake to come back but, the more he plots a way to leave, the more Manyenga schemes to keep him. He is virtually a captive.
A pawn in Manyenga's machinations is a virginal girl called Zizi, who becomes Hock's servant, cooking for him, doing his laundry. Perhaps the best part of the novel is the way Theroux builds trust between Hock and Zizi. Her goodness, her loyalty, and the enchanting dances she eventually does for Hock, make her the character we most empathize with, and the main reason Hock wants to survive.
It is hard to believe that any citified American in late middle age could endure the conditions -- the lack of good food, the tsetse flies, the threat of malaria, Manyenga's menacing cohorts, the stifling heat, the crocs, the hyenas, the ubiquitous snakes -- even if one had a way with snakes, as Hock does.
Such a person would have to be good at travelling light, be resourceful, be experienced in the ways of the world -- a person like... Paul Theroux.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest novel, Dating, does not stray far from his hometown.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 J7
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