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The Lower River

by Paul Theroux

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The Lower River by Paul Theroux
© Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2012

Ellis Hock's life is degenerating into a shambles: His marriage is failing. His daughter is demanding her inheritance ("Now!"). His upscale men's clothing store has succumbed to the declining economy. In an effort to regain his footing in life, Hock decides to return to Malawi, where he spent four idyllic years with the Peace Corps some 30 years ago.

The Edenic village he remembered has been transformed during the ensuing years by decades of neglect. Even so, many of the villagers remember him fondly and things seem promising. However, reality begins to rear its ugly head. Ruins mark the school he helped build, and no effort is being made to teach the kids. The church and clinic are gone, replaced by an epidemic of AIDS and assorted illnesses. Poverty and ennui are the new norm.

Hock's journey from the states to Malabo is both real and symbolic. It is truly a trip from the comforts of home into a less than third world village. He experiences a regression in time and technology. The roads he travels become less modern as potholes proliferate and eventually become little more than a game trail. He passes from substantial housing to shacks with tin roofs to mud huts that do little to stop the sun or rain. The Lower River, where the village of Malabo is located, is simply its name. Clearly, however, Hock has travelled from Eden to Hades into his personal cloaca of darkness along a modern River Styx. While he seems to be honored, Hock is suspect because he looks at the stars at night, an activity associated with witchcraft. He still captures snakes, another association with witchcraft.
He becomes even more suspect when he visits Gala, a native and fellow teacher with whom he was in love. The result is that he becomes aware that he is a prisoner in a decaying village. Hock "earned" this new status because he has money. As Manyenga,the headman, a devious, well-drawn criminal, tells him, Hock had no money to offer when he was in the Peace Corps. Now that he is back, rich, and literally with cash in hand, he is a valuable commodity who can be milked dry then sold down the river to other tribes who will hold him for ransom. The villagers, who have been exposed to Western excess, see money, not hard work, as the solution to their poverty.

The spark for The Lower River came from an event in Paul Theroux's own life. A Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, he met a friendly couple who invited him to their village. He soon learned that he would not be permitted to leave. He escaped only when a stranger driving through the area helped him. Theroux has transformed this event into a very fine novel in which the suspense and sense of foreboding escalate bit by plausible bit until there seems to be no escape from the net woven by Manyenga and the villagers. Although the resolution is in keeping with the world Theroux has created, it still seems a bit abrupt, too much deus ex machina.

Paul Theroux is the author of 29 novels and 15 works of nonfiction. With one book of literary criticism, and a host of articles, he remains one of our most prolific and respected authors.

Also reviewed here are:
Murder in Mount Holly
The Tao of Travel
The Great Railway Bazaar
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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