At its heart, claustrophobia is the fear not of small spaces, but of being confined without escape. It makes sense to speculate, then, that distance and space are not necessarily inoculatives against this fear; ironically, they can be the very things that stimulate it. A room or a box can be broken out of. But in The Lower River, Ellis Hock’s fears of captivity are brought about first by his quiet life in suburban Massachusetts, and then by the vastness of the African continent. The question of whether Hock can escape his confinements, real and perceived, drives this quietly suspenseful narrative from author Paul Theroux.
Ellis Hock, in his sixties, travels to Africa to reclaim the sense of worth and freedom he found there forty years before, when he lived in Malabo, Malawi for four years as a volunteer teacher. After his time in Africa, he returns to the States to run his deceased father’s custom men’s clothing store, gets married, and has a daughter. At the beginning of the book, his wife is divorcing him after she finds countless emails from Hock to other women, emails which constitute emotional infidelity: he speaks to these women in great detail of his dreams, his disappointments, and his love for the time he spent in Malawi so many years before. The third-person omniscient narrator is tightly bound to Hock’s point of view, but Theroux demonstrates a skill for conveying conflicting perspectives. It would be easy to write off Hock’s wife as a nagging harridan, and his daughter as a grasping bitch, but what really strikes the attentive reader is Hock’s lack of emotional connection to the two people he should care for most. After the divorce, he sells his shop and leaves his ex-wife and daughter with little regret and no notice, fancying himself a wronged, misunderstood soul who deserves a long-awaited respite.
A novel about a white man venturing into Africa to seek his fortune is bound to draw comparisons to Heart of Darkness, and thereby to that book’s predecessor, The Inferno. (Theroux throws us a sly wink when a character tells Hock to “abandon all hope,” upon learning that Hock intends to travel to the Lower River.) Theroux even gives us a kind of anti-Virgil in the duplicitous Festus Manyenga, the leader of the Malawi village to which Hock retires. Then, too, it is impossible to read such a book without at least a cursory examination of the racial politics inherent to the relationship between Hock and the inhabitants of the Lower River. Theroux sustains an impressively complex dynamic here, never painting one side or the other as entirely good or evil, drawing Hock as a man who is by turns naïve, idealistic, condescending, pompous, and pitiable. Hock arrives in Africa prepared to position himself as a savior by building a school, and views the villagers with benevolent condescension. He is quite ready to offer them the benefit of his education and philanthropy, and even to perhaps take one of their women as a wife, as long as they are willing to remain deferential and grateful.
He is unprepared. Ignorant of the changes that have swept Africa in the past four decades, Hock does not realize that many Africans have had quite enough of the kind of condescending charity offered to them by most first-world inhabitants. Long ago, Hock made a clumsy, presumptuous, and unsuccessful seduction attempt on Gala, a Malawi woman he re-connects with upon his return. She warns him in no uncertain terms that he needs to leave. “They will eat your money,” she says. “When your money is gone, they will eat you.” Hock considers himself an amateur herpetologist, and indeed is known among the locals for his lack of fear around snakes, but he makes the mistake of thinking he can handle a group of people the way he handles a dumb creature whom he loves but is too stupid to pay the respect of properly fearing. He is struggling for mastery of the creature that is preparing to eat him. Manyenga, for all his cunning and manipulation of Hock throughout the book, is the one person who tells Hock the truth about himself. When Hock tries to defend himself by saying that he has given Manyenga all his money, Manyenga replies, “Because you hate us and demand us to stay here… You insult us with food, you throw it to us like animals.”
Hock’s character has a chance for redemption in his relationship with Zizi, Gala’s sixteen-year-old granddaughter. He feels powerful sexual desire for Zizi at the same time he longs, paternalistically, to protect her. His struggle over whether to protect or exploit her meets with mixed success. Despite Hock’s failings, however, we want him to succeed, and we share his desperation. Theroux’s pacing is excellent, teasing but never tormenting the reader’s anticipation.
Ultimately, despite the allusions to Conrad and Dante, and the balancing of racial tension, The Lower River is a book that does not bear too much analysis. Its ending is conclusive plot-wise, but not thematically, nor does it resolve the ambiguities of Hock’s character. It could be viewed as a meditation on the inconsistencies of relations between first- and third-world nations, but it is best served by the reader looking for a well-written, menacing, satisfyingly intense, and thoughtful work of fiction.