San Francisco Chronicle // The Lower River by Paul Theroux

My review of Paul Theroux’s The Lower River ran in the 6/3/12 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Paul Theroux’s new novel, “The Lower River,” features one Ellis Hock, a 62-year-old haberdasher in Massachusetts. Newly divorced, estranged from his daughter and with his business failing, he decides to revisit the remote Malawian village where in his 20s he had spent four years with the Peace Corps. It’s a familiar conceit for a story, and the book – Theroux’s 45th – holds fast to some outdated, colonialist fantasies about the heroic white man’s hard, hard struggle to bring enlightenment to darkest Africa.

Upon his arrival, one of the villagers explains, “Hock was famous; he had attained the status of an almost mythical figure.” He believes himself to have special powers there, “something magical, almost godlike.” Things have, of course, fallen apart in his absence. Mere anarchy has been loosed – the social order has been upended, and the school Hock built has fallen into disrepair without him there to keep things running smoothly. The villagers’ primary concern now is to shake him down for money. As his cash dwindles, Hock finds himself cut off from the rest of the world, and his real troubles begin.
I can only hope that Hock is meant to serve as a critique of privileged Westerners trying to reshape the “savage” other in their own images. How else might we explain his observation that one of his old friends now “looked like a market mammy,” or his inappropriate relations with a girl who whitens herself with flour to dance for him? It’s to his credit, I guess, that Theroux avoids simple moralizing in favor of complex questions about charity and privilege, and “The Lower River” is a thought-provoking if at times discomforting read. There aren’t many books like it written anymore.