The Lower River
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 336 pp., $25
When Ellis Hock’s wife gives him a smartphone for his 62nd birthday, he shrugs it off, saying he’s fine with his clamshell-style one. To bring Hock, the third-generation proprietor of a men’s clothing shop in Medford, Mass., up to date, his wife of 30-some years sets up the smartphone for him. Downloading his email, she discovers piles of warm, intimate messages to other women. Oops: Marriage over.
This twist sets off the action of “The Lower River,” the latest novel by Paul Theroux, the prolific author of “The Mosquito Coast.” The protagonist Hock, whose only time away from home was a Peace Corps stint in Africa, unravels his ties to home and returns to the village in Malawi where he’d lived and worked for four years.
Malabo, in the early 1960s, was a small community so remote that electricity hadn’t reached it, where the local Sena people lived off the land as they had for generations. Although other international workers found the place unappealing, Hock reveled in it. He lived as they did, learned their language and built a school. He adopted and tended snakes, despite the Sena’s superstitions about them, and fell for a beautiful but spoken-for fellow teacher, Gala. He left only because his father had fallen terminally ill; as he married and raised a family in America, the village remained in his heart as an Eden, the place he’d been happiest.
So Hock disconnects entirely from his life: he divorces, sells his business, says goodbye to a single old friend, and hands over an exorbitant amount of money to his adult daughter. He doesn’t tell his family where he’s headed, doesn’t make a plan, really, other than to go to Malabo.
Once in Africa, he finds a friend from the old days who warns against his Malabo visit; when Hock gets cash from the bank, the teller warns him that it’s too much and that people where he’s going are hungry. Hock is oblivious to these signs, which indicate both that he’s in danger and that he may be trapped in one of those tired stories where the white man goes to the jungle and confronts dangerous natives.
The problem here is that Theroux is widely traveled, deeply thoughtful about the intersection of the First World and developing world, and himself lived in the southern region of Malawi in the early 1960s while serving in the Peace Corps. He even hails from Medford, Mass. Could he really have written a story that rehashes every post-“Heart of Darkness” cliché in the book?
By the time the deferential African servant girl was dancing naked for Hock, I was convinced that he had. But I’m jumping ahead.
Hock travels south, making the last leg of the journey on the back of a motorcycle driven by Festus Manyenga, the new chief of Malabo. In his mid-30s, welcoming but shifty, Manyenga sets up Hock in a hut with Zizi, a chaste 16-year-old girl who waits on him hand and foot. Hock is disappointed to learn that the school he built has long been closed; when he tries to repair it, the boys enlisted to help him steal his tools. Lulled into a lethargic contentment, Hock eventually seeks out Gala, the African woman he loved four decades before.
Although everyone else from that era is dead or gone, Gala is alive, a well-educated matriarch living in a house in the bush. “Her face was puffy and dull, like scuffed shoe leather, the skin around her eyes purplish from age, her bare arms blotchy,” Hock observes. The slender body he once lusted after has gone “big, coarse, and aged.” When he learns that young Zizi is Gala’s granddaughter, he tries to convert his desire for her into a more custodial affection, with only partial success. Hock trusts only Zizi and Gala; the latter warns him against the people in Malabo. “They will eat your money,” she says. “When your money is gone, they will eat you too.”
Hock heeds this too late; it’s not easy for him to break away. He falls ill, is shadowed when he leaves his hut, and sends messages that are intercepted. When he finally gets away from the town, his journey along the Lower River does not save him. He’s out of the hands of the manipulative chief intent on siphoning away all of his money and into the fire of unsupervised, hostile, hungry orphans.
At the mercy of these children, Hock witnesses a helicopter food drop that increases the chaos around him. In the helicopter is a man with a camera pointed at a blond in a black skintight suit and “a white man in a cowboy hat.” The allusion to Angelina Jolie may be inferred, and the connection to Bono is clear. In a 2005 Op-Ed for the New York Times, Theroux wrote, “There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can't think of one at the moment.” In this fictional version, the famous pair in the relief helicopter rebuff the calls for help from Hock, who is as desperate and hungry as the children around him.
Yet he never is in quite as much trouble, because he has the tie to the West: If he reaches the right contact, he can get home. He doesn’t try to sustain himself; he doesn’t cook a meal, find food, brew his own tea, not once. He lives on his money, and when the money is gone, he is worthless.
Stripped of everything, he sends out a desperate letter for help — not carrying it himself, he has Zizi do it for him. The only thing she has of value is her virginity; I’ll let you guess whether she keeps it. And then see if you can predict if Hock will be the white savior, descending into the savagery of Africa and emerging, escaping, victorious.
Are we meant to sympathize with Hock? He is obtuse and ignorant about Malawi and makes no effort to understand the political situation there before returning. He looks at the woman he once loved and sees only aged ugliness — never mind that he is older than her. He revels in the nakedness of the 16-year-old who is kind to him, thinking that he cares for her when their entire relationship is built on her absolute servitude. I looked for signs of satire but could find none.
If Theroux wants to teach us lessons — and it is clear from his nonfiction writing that he does — it is unfortunate that he relied on such stale tropes. He knows so much about this unheralded southeast corner of Africa — this book includes capable descriptions of place, interwoven with the language and culture of the Sena — and yet the story he tells is predictable, peopled with stock bit players, and disappointingly familiar.