by Paul Theroux ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 24, 1981
The narrator of this spirited, excessive, half-successful adventure/parable is 13-year-old Charlie Fox. But the main character is Charlie's father Allie--and a character he is, in the grand (somewhat empty) tradition of eccentric, vocal, never-say die, anti-everything genius/jerks. Inventor and handyman, atheistic Bible scholar and all-around know-it-all, Allie has moved his wife and four kids (Charlie's the oldest) to a farm near Northampton, Mass. But now even that rural, individualistic, home-schooling existence has gotten too polluted with plastic America. (The funny opening chapters feature Allie's public outbursts against cheeseburgers and cheap imports.) So, convinced of approaching apocalypse and inspired by the Central American ""savages"" who are the farm's cheap labor, Allie impulsively decides to quit America entirely and take up residence in the jungles of Honduras: the Fox clan, following Allie with blind faith and leaving everything behind, is soon on a banana-boat out of Baltimore, heading south. All this, of course, is the stuff of boys'-book adventure or Swiss Family Robinson; and the gut excitement of traveling-light-to-nowhere (also recalling Theroux's train-trip books) propels the novel's first half along fiercely--even though the expedition is grim at nearly every turn, even though Allie's super-feats along the way (putting the ship on even keel, doing 75 pushups, showing up a missionary) aren't convincing enough to balance his obvious nuttiness. The first stop is a dreary coastal town full of dead dogs and vultures. Then it's on, perilously, by boat to an inland ""town"" that Allie has bought: Jeronimo--just some ""sour-smelling bushes in a overgrown clearing,"" with a few Zambus and Creoles for neighbors. Yet Allie's dreams for Jeronimo soon come true: an efficient, clean settlement--""We had defeated the mosquitoes, tamed the river, drained the swamp""--with Allie's great invention (an ammonia-powered icehouse) as its miracle-centerpiece. Can this Utopia last? Of course not. Allie's paranoia and megalomania become increasingly obvious--on a trek to bring ice to the Indians (cf. Theroux's short-story, ""The Imperial Icehouse""), in his murder of some creepy strangers. . . who die in the exploding icehouse as ammonia pollutes the whole area. So from then on it's sheer nightmare--on the run, on the river, in mud and flood--while the children grow to hate Allie and even plot to kill him. Allie will die, in fact, but from both bullets and vultures--man and nature. And it's one of the many overdrawn effects in a novel that regularly sacrifices plausibility and pacing for the bold outlining or heavy reiteration of themes: the doomed dreams of Yankee ingenuity and individualism, the inevitable intertwining of progress and danger. Still, though the presentation of the serious ideas here is more noisy and colorful than thoughtful, the storytelling itself--full of clever descriptive writing and inventive action--sustains the entertainment mightily until the thin characterizations (with their predictable transformations) run dry. And Theroux has never before so cannily combined the evocative power of his non-fiction with the zest (the comedy especially) of his best fiction.
Pub Date: Feb. 24, 1981
Page Count: -
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1981
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