The Lower River, an electrifying moral adventure by Paul Theroux, is by turns a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and devastatingly imaginative social critique. It grapples a contemporary truth seldom mentioned but immediately recognized, the white man's incomprehension of Black Africa.
Ellis Hock is an American "everyman," a retired mens' clothier in his sixties who - following an unpleasant divorce from his wife of many years, plus the estrangement of his adult daughter, as well as the loss of his family home - feels compelled to retreat from the society in which he was never truly happy nor to which he feels he ever really belonged.
Hock's deepest and most private desire during the past forty years of living the successful but unfulfilling American Dream in Medford, Massachusetts, has been to return to the remote village in one of the poorest and most under-developed countries in Africa, Malawi, where he was a respected and much-loved teacher for the Peace Corp. It was there during the 1960s in the village of Malabo where Hock was the happiest and most contented in his life... and it is there where he is now destined, to Malabo, the only place Ellis Hock has left to go. Hock will return to the Lower River, to "the measure of his happiness."
I am an armchair escapist greatly attracted to literary travel experiences, so Ellis Hock's journey back to the Lower River (reflecting Theroux's own experiences in Malawi) had me intensely fascinated and thoroughly engaged. No, it is more accurate to say that the impassive cruelty of Theroux's unsympathetic realism snared me, took me in its jaws, sunk its teeth into me and dragged me along with it, never releasing me until the last page and that final sentence were reached. Theroux stole my breath. He not only took me to the malarial setting of Malawi but made me feel every brutal reality that Hock was to encounter there.
THE LOWER RIVER is a hero's journey of Conradian richness - raw, exotic and intimate to read. It is rather evocative of Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" but in a photonegative kind of way, in which the light and the dark are in inverse relation to Campbell's original model. Joe Campbell organized the hero's journey into three sections: "Departure" or the hero's adventure prior to the quest; "Initiation" or the hero's many adventures along the way; and "Return" which involves the hero's return home with knowledge acquired along the journey.
This is also the pattern of Hock's adventure but as Theroux's humid narrative penetrates deeper and deeper into the dark territory of a desperate and dangerous Malawi, Hock's journey on the Lower River leads not to a decisive victory won by the hero, with the hero returning with great power to bestow boons upon his fellow man...no, it leads to desperation, degradation, disintegration and death.
This is a novel of psychological penetration, moral perceptibility, and symbolic power. Hock, the white "everyman" is brought face to face with corruption and despair at the very heart of humanity. "He had come here as a man, with willingness and money, assured of meeting friends and...with a confidence that amounted almost to a sense of superiority." But this proves to become his tragic mistake.
Theroux's treatment of the Sena people of Malawi is realistic without being pandering. "They were not diabolical; they were desperate. But desperation made them cruel and casual."
THE LOWER RIVER is a novel of character complexity with strong undercurrents of social issues. Hock says: "As soon as I arrived the other day, I felt rejuvenated, as I had when I first came here. It's strange the power a white person feels in Africa. It should be the opposite, feeling like the odd man out. But no, a kind of strength is attributed to us."
Hock's self-perception, running parallel with all the white persons' assumptions about their roles in Africa, is challenged in this novel. It is a theme with the intensity of the African sun, fierce and inescapable, but above all, undeniably important. The Lower River is a gripping and haunting but relevant novel... of the most serious purpose.