- - Friday, September 21, 2012

By Paul Theroux
Houghton, Mifflin, $25, 336 pages

The central character in Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River” is a man who ran a high-end men’s shop in Medford, Mass., for many years, It stocked Scottish tweeds, argyle socks and even “Tyrolean hats in velour, with a twist of feathers in the hatband.” Hock’s was the sort of place “where clerk and customer discussed the color of a tie, the style of a suit, the drape of a coat.”

In his younger years, however, Ellis Hock was a Peace Corps volunteer stationed within “the poorest part of a poor country,” Malawi. And as the years passed, he often thought fondly of this “happy refuge,” a village called Malabo, where strung-up fishing nets and thick-walled huts were shaded by “low trees like parasols of green.” “Africa,” he liked to say, “was my Eden.”

Newly retired, Hock decides to return to Malawi. What will he find there — a chance for rejuvenation? Or will he discover that the warm memories of his own private Malabo no longer come close to reflecting life as it is lived now in the area known as the “Lower River”?

Mr. Theroux, of course, is particularly well-known for his literary travel writing and for the novel “The Mosquito Coast.” Much of his work reveals a special interest in dangerous journeys and exotic locales. Mr. Theroux’s 1983 essay, “Subterranean Gothic,” also offers a memorable glimpse of his narrative interests and his darkly comic style.

Here, Mr. Theroux spends a week riding the New York subway, which he compares to “a complex—and diseased—circulatory system.” In 1904, when the subway opened, it was widely considered a world wonder that would fix the city’s transportation problems for “centuries to come.” But it was overused and underfunded, Mr. Theroux reports, and in due course became the Big Apple’s rotten core. New Yorkers waiting at bus stops have “a special pitying gaze for people entering the subway.” They “look like miners’ wives watching their menfolk going down the pit.”

The subway, pre-Rudolph W. Giuliani, “looks disgusting and it stinks.” Strange and menacing people wander about; graffiti abounds.

In fear of theft or assault, the passengers “sit bolt upright with fixed expressions, ready for anything.” On the subway, a rider’s worst fear is to miss his stop and end up alone in some gloomy and suffocating station “straight out of Poe.” New York is a jungle, the worldly Mr. Theroux declares, but then “all very large cities are jungles.” They “are dense and dark and full of surprises.” Like jungles, they contain “mazy areas of great danger” that savvy citizens must learn to navigate or avoid.

Clearly, Hock would have been better served had he spent several decades riding the A train instead of selling socks in sleepy Medford. He returns to Africa in a state of nostalgic naivete, sporting a bush hat, a safari jacket and a friendly smile. He has filled his bag with wads of cash. He orders a big batch of books and supplies for the little school he helped build all those years ago.

Once in Malawi, Hock hears warnings he fails to heed. He encounters an old colleague who tells him that no one goes to Malabo anymore. It’s just another dusty, dodgy outpost where the idealistic dreams of the post-independence years have gone to die. Hock’s jaded friend tells him to head instead to one of the new lakeside tourist lodges designed to provide comfort as well as a bit of supervised adventure for sightseeing foreigners. “You can swim, you can hire a fishing guide, you can just lie in a hammock all day and stay squiffy. You’ve got the money for it.”

But Hock persists in his sentimental quest, and, initially at least, he is warmed by the reception he receives. True, very few people in Malabo remember him. And many of the good things that lived luminously for so long in his memory, including the village clinic and church, are nowhere to be found. Worse, his beloved school is a ruin, its roof and windows gone. And yet Hock, the rich American, is flattered and fawned over like a village chief.

Then reality intrudes. Hock finds himself trapped in Malabo. Most of the villagers, he realizes, regard him as little more than an easy mark — a fresh resource to be squeezed dry. He grows seedier and needier with each passing day. He tries to flee but ends up in an even more sinister no-man’s land where scores of “feral” orphans are vaguely managed by surly teenage boys. “There is no government here,” one of these hardened young men tells Hock. “We are the government.”

Suddenly, “The Lower River” starts to read like “The Lord of the Flies,” particularly when the children — clad in cast-off T-shirts bearing cheery logos for American sports teams and lobster festivals and the like — do their best to drive Hock to his death in the river’s foul water, filled with crocodiles and snakes. Although Hock escapes this horror, others unfold. The once dapper haberdasher becomes a ragged pawn in a deadly game he cannot understand.

Mr. Theroux’s many admirers will find much to enjoy in “The Lower River.” It’s grim but lively — another masterful performance by a writer with a shrewd eye who knows precisely how to put a well-built narrative on the rails and keep it rolling. “The Lower River” is thoughtful as well as sensational, reminding readers of the risks and dangers that often await those who choose to journey without maps. It’s a cautionary tale also, underscoring the sad fact that memories really do grow unreliable with time — that one’s illusions can be lethal as well as consoling.

Hock learns the hard way that there are no earthly Edens and that the wall that separates social order from social disorder is far flimsier than prosperous people in the West tend to believe. The villagers whom Hock remembered so fondly had grown “shabby, lazy, dependent, blaming, and selfish.” They “were like most people. You don’t have to come all this way to be maddened by them. You could meet them almost anywhere.”

• Brian Murray teaches at Loyola University Maryland.

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