Nostalgia is a killer: It can lull us off guard, lead us into the dangers that come when, deep in age, we romanticize things like a ropeless climb or a seatbeltless swerve around a mountain road and decide to try the foolhardiness of bygone days again.
At the very least, nostalgia, as the waggish Peter De Vries once said, isn’t what it used to be—and what it used to be is a business that involves putting fresh paint over peeling walls, fresh carpet over a whole lot of mildew.
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When Ellis Hock’s wife gives him, at the beginning of Paul Theroux’s The Lower River a new cell phone, she tells him that it will change his life. He is quietly unimpressed. “Hock smiled because he was turning sixty-two,” writes Theroux, “not an age of life-altering shocks but only of subtle diminishments.” Well, there’s a life-altering shock indeed coming, enough to make him pack up his haberdashery and light out for the territories—a distant country in South Africa where, like his inventor, Hock spent some of the rite-of-passage years of his young adulthood in the Peace Corps.
Ellis, “the mzungu from America,” has longed to go to that distant second home, Malabo, for decades, but has never managed to make it happen, held fast by the bonds of life to gray New England. “The sunny word ‘Africa,’ spoken on a wet November day in Medford Square, seemed almost blasphemous and made him rueful again,” Theroux writes of a reflective Ellis. The shakeup in his life, though, makes Ellis realize that there was a reason that he had never stopped thinking about Africa, four decades on, precisely because it was there that he really lived his life.
Or did he? There’s a wonderful exchange in Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers in which one character naively says of Vietnam, where they are mired, to a friend, “Don’t they say that this is where everybody finds out who they are?” Replies his friend, a tough-as-nails cynic, “Yeah. What a bummer for the gooks.” Theroux, a world traveler and sometimes-impatient chronicler of the ways of other places, is thoroughly aware of the temptations and entrapments of golden-age thinking. But Ellis is not: Convinced that his life in America has been a dream, a waste, even a nightmare, he boards a plane and heads to Malabo.
Things have changed there. Out in the woods, armed bands wander. Inside the village where he worked, far out in the bush, life is a mess. The school, the clinic, the church that he helped build are in ruins, the people no better off than in the years before his particular brand of help arrived. The headman, Manyenga, plays a mean game of emotional chess, now allowing the mzungu, the white man, to think that he is all-knowing and desperately needed, now making it plain that Ellis is a sentimental fool.
Ellis is badgered, robbed, mocked, held prisoner and ignored, and as he slides into the kind of slow but perceptibly hastened diminishment that kept Kurtz awake at night in Heart of Darkness, he begins to realize that the only person who stands between him and death might well be a quiet and loyal, yet reproachful, 16-year-old girl who, it seems, is much wiser than he. In the end, no one is blameless—and no one escapes unscathed.
The Lower River is in part roman à clef, an entry in the index of Theroux’s own long-ago life. It is heightened and exaggerated, perhaps, but also as plain a condemnation of power games in far-off places as V.S. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River. (Theroux and Naipaul, of course, have had a difficult friendship, and at points one senses that Theroux is subtly commenting on the antecedent work.) At its angriest, it is a scathing sendup of international aid organizations, which do just one thing well—make a bad situation worse. “Altruism was unknown,” writes Theroux. “Forty years of aid and charities and NGOs had taught them that. Only self-interested outsiders trifled with Africa, so Africa punished them for it.” That’s a controversial stand, but if Theroux isn’t the first to voice it, he lends urgency to works such as David Rieff’s A Bed for the Night and Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors.
All that is incidental, though, to the fact that the new novel shows Theroux’s skills as a storyteller and writer to superb advantage, and with a certain lightness and generosity of spirit replacing his sometimes frustrating grumpiness. Our review said of The Lower River that it attains “the sweep and density of his 1981 masterpiece The Mosquito Coast.” That’s just right, though without the fireworks, verbal and emotional, that accompanied Theroux’s account of another dreamer brought to ruin. It’s a novel that deserves much attention—and for all the right reasons.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).