The Mosquito Coast – Andy goes feral with TherouxDecember 2, 2012
“Oh god,” the owner of my favourite secondhand bookshop said when I told him I was looking for a novel by Paul Theroux. “A really boring travel writer and an even worse novelist!” He was no fan of Nadine Gordimer, either. Or Doris Lessing, although I didn’t ask about her, he just threw her into the mix. I have no idea if he’s right about Lessing. I concur with him on Gordimer. But I disagree on Theroux.
I was supposed to read My Secret History, one of Netty’s favourite books, but finding a copy proved impossible. So I settled for The Mosquito Coast, another of Theroux’s novels Netty has read and one that another of my favourite secondhand bookshops had on its shelves, in a rather handsome year-of-publication hardback edition. Not a first edition though, sadly. (I do have a first edition of Gore Vidal’s Myron, his sequel to Myra Breckinridge, which Netty blogged on a few months back. Rather have a first edition of Myra, but there you go.)
If you haven’t seen the movie – and I hadn’t until last week, and I need to watch it again because I was a tad, err, under the weather at the time – The Mosquito Coast is narrated by Charlie Fox, eldest son of Allie Fox, an inventor and, err, eccentric. A man of arguably extreme and certainly muscular views. Tired of America, Fox relocates his family to a wild, unsettled area of Honduras. Things here are tough for a bit, but then they get better. Allie creates not just a functioning family compound but an ice machine, and is very proud of himself. Not everybody is quite so impressed, but Charlie and the other kids seem reasonably happy, and reasonably proud of their dad.
And then things go wrong.
And then they get worse.
And then things get really, really bad.
And then there’s the bit at the end, a piece of grotesque poetic justice that Peter Weir wimped out on in the movie. So you’d have lost your PG rating, Pete. Big deal. That scene – monstrous, and shocking, and monstrously, shockingly thrilling – should’ve been in the movie.
On the strength of this novel, and it’s all of his I’ve read, Theroux is not a great writer. He’s good, though. Seriously good. Unlike Cormac McCarthy, say, countless sentences do not jump out screaming I AM THE WORK OF A GENIUS. Theroux’s style in understated, deceptively pedestrian. There’s wit, certainly, and there are occasional, wonderful moments of poetry. The Mosquito Coast was published in 1981, 14 years after Theroux’s first novel. It has the feel of an established, mid-career writer, comfortable with his limitations and prepared perhaps to nudge and explore those limitations, rather than overextend himself and produce a mess. It’s a really, really well-written yarn. And as a yarn it’s awesome.
There’s more going on here than a yarn, of course, and this counts towards Theroux’s skill as a writer and a storyteller. On one level it’s an exploration of the father-son dynamic – father as despot, son as traitor. Charlie is aware from the outset of his father’s shortcomings, which makes his attempts, late in the novel, to support and defend him quite poignant (if also infuriating). It’s also a perhaps reactionary look at the idea that all utopias must, by their nature, descend into totalitarianism. Allie Fox wants to believe he is an idealist; ultimately he’s a deluded bully. There are points that could be made about colonialism and the West’s cultural arrogance, as well, although Theroux cleverly muddies those waters by having Allie espouse ideas that sound like Western elitism, but then having him abandon them and berate himself for ever having held them. Making him look even more deluded than he was in the first place – and he looked deluded enough then.
The Mosquito Coast is not a great book. But then apparently The Sportswriter is. And if you were to ask me which of these books you should read, I’d tell you The Mosquito Coast. Without hesitation. And if you were then to say to me, But I should get around to The Sportswriter, yeah? I’d probably shrug and say something like, If you’ve got the time.
Make of that what you will.