Paul Theroux is a troubled favourite travel writer of mine. He is complex and imperfect but his adventures are incredible, and his writing style has you sitting next to him on the train along the way. The Mosquito Coast is my first foray into Theroux’s fiction, and the premise is something of a late-20th Century Heart of Darkness: Allie Fox rues the world, abominating the cops, crooks, scavengers and “funny-bunnies” of the United States, so he abandons civilisation and takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle. With a bewitchingly domineering personality, the tortured genius keeps them alive, with his repetitive tirades harrying them through a diseased and dirty Eden toward real darkness and terror.
But this book is not necessarily about a physical journey, it’s about a personality. Narrated from the perspective of Charlie Fox, the eldest of four kids, this story is all about their infuriating, manipulative, ingenious father. It is his sheer maddening compulsion that pulls them out of the country and into the deeper and darker places of their fears. He is an inventor and a genius, which is infuriating, because he is also a liar, a psychological abuser, a pathological user, a psychopath. It’s unclear why or how he has a wife or family, and just as they get to their breaking point, he displays astonishing neediness and adoration. They are unhealthy, uncomfortable relationships to watch.
It is through fear and genius that Charlie and his younger brother Jerry come to admire their father. His moods, rants, fears and proclivities rule their day, and when he takes them to Honduras come to rule their lives in totality. On another level, this story is about how, as Charlie grows up, the hero-sheen of his father begins to wear off. No longer a child, mature enough to realise that his father’s opinion does not have to constitute reality.
“His confidence was something I did not want to hear now…Once, I had believed that Father was so much taller than me, he saw things I missed. I excused adults who disagreed with me, and blamed myself because I was so short. But this was something I could judge. I had seen it. Lies made me uncomfortable and Father’s lie, which was also a blind boast, sickened me and separated me from him.”
The gall of Allie is amazing, blaming his kids for being short, his wife for getting ill; every failure of another becomes a way to show off his own prowess. He is intolerable, a hypocrite, a mis-informed know it all. Worse, he is an abuser: the push-pull love that he exhibits for his family keep them in his thrall, not just to the other side of the earth but deep into the Honduran jungle where life becomes one of scavenging, subsistence, and severe sickness.
The Mosquito Coast is a journey, a psychological thriller; infuriating and intoxicating. The Fox family go to an unimaginable world, as the physical travel becomes a metaphor for the inner turmoil and danger they are reaching. It let me feeling a little dirty, a little clearer, unsatisfied with Allie as a human, but satisfied with Theroux as a writer.