The Mosquito Coast
by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 374 pp., $13.95
Many novelists quickly establish an authorial identity that remains recognizable, through good books and bad, from the beginning to the culmination of the writer’s career. The authorial “ego” visible in The Pickwick Papers is still visible, despite a multiplicity of changes, in Our Mutual Friend. Marked stylistic traits, patterns of humor, anger, and disgust, patterns of behavior and response, a predilection for certain kinds of characters and situations—these constitute the general reader’s awareness of such an identity; for the linguistically trained expert there are of course other, more “objective” forms of evidence—word-counts, phrasal or grammatical tics, classification of images, etc.—that can often be computerized. I am sure that some of the latter apparatus could be successfully applied to the novels of Paul Theroux, but for many of us he remains the most protean of writers, a master of disguise whose authorial identity has yet to be fixed or revealed.
My acquaintance with Theroux began with The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), which is surely one of the two or three best travel books in English to appear since the end of the Second World War. To participate in what still remains a distinctively British genre, Theroux (though clearly labeled an American) saw fit to assume the personality of a testy, somewhat bibulous Englishman of a sort that might have been encountered on the Bombay Express or an Amazonian paddle-wheel in the days when the going was really good. This Waugh-like impersonation was successful—and very funny. The assumption of not-wholly-alien disguises, accompanied by striking displays of adaptive coloration and mimicry of pre-existing (chiefly British) species, has continued.
I have now read six of Theroux’s nine novels and a collection of his short stories (The Consul’s File) and have been entertained in varying degrees by all of them. The Black House and The Family Arsenal seemed to me especially interesting, the latter a marvel of intricate design. Theroux is clever, inventive, and assured without being slick. But so labile is his authorial character that I could not have opened his latest novel at random (without looking at the cover) and been able to identify it, after reading twenty or fifty pages, as the work of the ingenious Paul Theroux.
Ingenuity—Yankee ingenuity—is a major preoccupation in The Mosquito Coast. Its narrator is the thirteen-year-old Charlie Fox, whose father, Allie, is the hero-villain of the story. Allie (always referred to as Father) is an outspoken, slightly crackpot New Englander, an inventor of useful gadgets, a man who can do anything with his hands and a few pieces of scrap. He is also a tireless ranter against the commercial and moral pollution of nearly every aspect of contemporary American culture.
“This place is a toilet,” he said as we entered Northampton. He wore a baseball cap and drove with his elbow out the window. “It’s not the college girls, though they’re bad enough. Look at Tugboat Annie over there, the size of her. She …