Paul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, is set in contemporary Malawi. It’s a notable creation, but one that sits oddly in the Theroux oeuvre.
At this point in Theroux’s long and prodigious literary career, each new work necessarily arrives against an established backdrop displaying familiar scenes from the author’s real life—his introduction to the third world through his 1963–1965 Peace Corps teaching experience in Nyasaland/Malawi, his friendship with and painful defriending by V.S. Naipaul, his complex domestic and amatory life, his reinvention and reinvigoration of the travel-writing genre. He is, without question, one of the preeminent travel writers of our time, and his way of reading the otherness of the offshore world has made him popular, famous, and wealthy.
But Theroux is also a successful novelist and short-story writer. He has published more fiction than nonfiction. The Mosquito Coast (1982) is his most celebrated novel, and his hybrid romans à clef, My Secret History (1989) and My Other Life (1996), biofictions, are his most notorious creations, with their teasing recycling of already familiar dramatic episodes in his personal history. His other novels are mainly variants of third-world picaresque—political, psychological, and crime thrillers, and one science-fiction work. Six of the novels have been made into movies.
Few writers, even those as or more prolific than Theroux, have managed to create—through the full range of their works—a voice so unified, so unwavering, so unmistakable. The Theroux persona is smart, irreverent, wry, democratic, honest, undeluded, intimate, American but in a good way, wistful, long-suffering but in a brave way, secular, anticlerical but in a mild way, bold (one book of his was banned in Malawi, another in Singapore). It’s not a mystery that he has generated this persona: his copious travel chronicles are in the first person; naturally, his sharing of personal matters is disarming; and there is in his fiction a remarkable continuity of tone in the authorial identity operating the machinery of the tales told. You are poised to expect a particular voice when you open a book by Paul Theroux. There is an anticipation of seamlessness, call it. But The Lower River confounds.
What happens in The Lower River? On the surface, it is a straightforward tale of misadventure in Africa today. Ellis Hock is an unassuming small businessman making his living in Theroux’s hometown of Medford, Massachusetts. He has a wife and a married daughter. He is sixty-two. The time is the present.
Hock, as the author refers to him (giving a faintly nineteenth-century tonus to the relationship between creator and protagonist), seems to have lived an essentially blameless life. On his father’s death, he has shouldered the responsibility for the family business, a haberdashery. He has enjoyed the small pleasures yielded by this self-employment, such as dressing nattily. The business is in trouble as a consequence of neighborhood decline, but the situation …