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Moby-Dad

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’s so big it would only take eleven of her kind to make a dozen. But that’s fat—that’s not health. That’s cheeseburgers.” And he stuck his head out the window and hollered, “That’s cheeseburgers!”

Down Main Street (“They’re all on drugs”), we passed a Getty station and Father howled at the price of gas…. Just the word Collectibles, on a storefront, irritated him. And near the hardware store there was a vending machine that sold ice by the bag.

They sell ice—ten pounds for half a buck. But water’s as free as air. Those dingbats are selling water! Water’s the new growth industry. Mineral water, spring water, sparkling water…. Low-cal beer—know what’s in it? Know why it keeps you thin? Know why it costs you more than the regular? Water!”

Father works as a kind of glorified repairman on the farm of a man named Polski. When Father invents a firebox ice maker (called the Worm Tub) which conserves energy by using small amounts of cheap kerosene instead of electricity, he offers it to Polski, who scorns it; Father then gives it to a group of impoverished Central American migrant workers who are housed in great squalor on the farm.

Central Americans and the ice maker—thus early conjoined—will figure largely in the story as it unfolds. For Father, after denouncing Polski for the immoral principles by which he runs the farm (holding back his surplus asparagus production until prices rise), sets off for Central America with his family (Mother, Charlie, eleven-year-old Jerry, and the twin little girls); he is determined to escape what he believes to be the imminent destruction of the United States by war and to found a new life for himself and has family in accordance with the old American ideals (now disregarded) of hard work, self-reliance, ingenuity, and integrity.

With exuberant detail Theroux relates the voyage of the Fox family by banana boat to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and then their upstream odyssey in a launch laden with pipes, fittings, and sundry equipment to settle in a “town” called Jeronimo.

Jeronimo, just a name, was the muddy end of the muddy path. Because it had once been a clearing and was now overgrown, it was thicker with bushes and weeds than any jungle…. It was hot, damp, smelly, full of bugs, and its leaves were limp and dark green, “like old dollar bills,” Father said.

Along the way, Father dominates every scene and episode. He manages to right the slipping cargo of the banana boat during a storm, ridicules the missionaries who are traveling with them (Father is an old-fashioned atheist), bosses everyone in sight, repeatedly orders Charlie to undergo tests of courage—and fixes everything that needs fixing. Charlie’s feelings toward his father are a mixture of love, dread, admiration, and dependency.

I just wanted to be near him. I feared the recklessness of his courage…. If he dies, I thought, we are lost. Whenever he was out of sight, I got worried and did not stop worrying until I heard him whistling or singing “Under the Bam, Under the Boo.” He noticed me tagging after him. Often, he stooped over and said to me, “How am I doing?”

I said fine. But I did not know what he was doing, or why.

With the help of his family and several local Creoles and Zambu Indians, Father tames his patch of wilderness. He is a relentless taskmaster, pushing his helpers to the limit, alternately bullying and encouraging them to greater exertions. A commodious house is built, with a gallery; latrines and showers are installed; a garden is planted with seeds brought from the States; it flourishes and soon produces a bumper crop of beans, corn, and tomatoes. Then, touched with megalomania, Father constructs a gigantic version of his “Worm Tub” and fills its pipes with augmented ammonia and hydrogen brought up from the coast; named “Fat Boy,” the monstrous ice maker towers over the settlement—and it works! Jeronimo is a success, a triumph of the Crusoe spirit in its Yankeefied version.

We had defeated the mosquitoes, tamed the river, drained the swamp, and irrigated the gardens. We had seen the worst of Honduras weather—the June floods, the September heat—and we had overcome both…. We were organized, Father said. Our drinking water was purified in a distiller that ran from Fat Boy’s firebox. We had the only ice-making plant in Mosquitia, the only one of its kind in the world, and the capability, Father said, of making an iceberg.

But the construction of Fat Boy is an act of hubris, and Father’s desire to bring ice to the Indians—up the river by launch and over the mountain by sled—becomes inordinate, obsessed, mad…. Before our eyes he changes into an Ahab-like figure, gaunt and wild-eyed, wanting to straighten rivers and to sink a shaft 5,000 feet into the earth to tap geothermal energy. Jeronimo begins to disintegrate. An intricate trail of events leads to the catastrophic explosion of Fat Boy, devastating the area and poisoning the river with ammonium hydroxide. “I know what you’re thinking. All right, I admit it—I did a terrible thing. I took a flyer. I polluted this whole place. I’m a murderer.” But Father’s confession is no sooner made than retracted: “He sobbed again. ‘It wasn’t me!”’

From then on the madness of this “Ugly American” is dreadful to behold. He moves the family downstream and tries to reestablish them on the foul swampy edge of a coastal lagoon—only to be flooded out when the rainy season comes. When his wife and children beg to go back to Massachusetts, he tells them that the United States has been destroyed by war, that they are lucky to be where they are—and they believe him.

As the catastrophe approaches, Theroux thickens his imagery, adding more teeming and crawling animal life to the stinking mud, pelting the reader with diluvial rains, littering the swamp with debris, darkening the sky with vultures. The writing in these final chapters is extraordinarily charged and vivid, perhaps a bit operatic for some tastes but on the whole impressive in its hallucinatory power. Clearly, in this book, the author is out to harpoon a whale. The shades of Greene, Conrad, and Maugham that hovered over Theroux’s earlier novels have been scattered by the grim-visaged ghost of Melville. The theme of Yankeeingenuity-gone-berserk is a strong one, with many ramifications, and Theroux has handled it with commendable skill.

Though Allie Fox is an archetypal figure whose career follows an emblematic line, Theroux has avoided the sterility of much quasi-allegorical writing by endowing his main character with a lively and dense specificity. His invective against the follies of contemporary America is funny and full of surprising turns. While eventually we come to share Charlie’s dismay and young Jerry’s hatred, their father, for much of The Mosquito Coast, engages us by the sheer energy and resourcefulness with which he tackles every problem at hand. His fall is as pitiable as it is terrible, and it is presented as the self-engendered destruction of an exceptional man as well as the collapse of a dangerously outdated ideal.

There is so much to marvel at in The Mosquito Coast—Theroux’s orchestration of his story, his marshaling of technological knowledge, the easy authority with which he establishes and exploits the Honduran setting—that I wish I liked it as wholeheartedly as I admire many of its parts. But I found myself from time to time backing away, as though it were a bully with a club coercing my response.

By concentrating so exclusively upon the almighty Father, Theroux leaves little breathing space for the other characters. While Charlie is a sensitive and observant narrator, perceptive beyond his years, he is scarcely allowed a thought that is not centered on his old man. Mother (she has no other name) has hardly any existence at all; she seems not only subservient to the point of extinction but stupid as well. Jerry’s rebelliousness toward the novel’s end comes as a relief, but until that point he too has hardly existed. While graphically sketched in, the various Creoles, Indians, marauders, and missionaries appear and disappear, leaving no real mark upon the reader. Megalomania, when relentlessly depicted, has a way of using up all of the available air.

I am left finally with the sense that The Mosquito Coast is a brilliant display-piece, the latest and most spectacular of Theroux’s performances. Perhaps we should think of him as the Paganini of contemporary novelists and stop worrying about the coherence of his authorial identity.

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