Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > The Lower River

The Lower River by Paul Theroux
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Jun 23, 2013

really liked it
Read from July 28 to 29, 2012

Just like them, he was a wisp of diminishing humanity, with nothing in his pockets--hardly had pockets!--and he felt a lightness because of it. With no money he was insubstantial and beneath notice. As soon as everyone knew he had nothing, they would stop asking him for money, would stop talking to him altogether, probably. Yet tugging at this lightness was another sensation of weight, his poverty like an anchor. He couldn't move or go anywhere; he had no bargaining power. He was anchored by an absence of money, not just immovable but sitting and slipping lower.

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Paul Theroux

I have met Paul Theroux several times, but the most memorable was in Seattle. I was in town selling remainder books to the local bookstores and one of my stops was the University Bookstore. I noticed that Theroux was booked to be there that night for a reading. At each bookstore stop I had that day I looked for a copy of one of his books that I didn't already own, so I could have something for him to sign. I found a copy of The Kingdom by the Sea.

I was early for the event. Paul was late.

He arrived 40 minutes late and informed us that he had been enjoying his meal and had lingered over his aperitif. I had heard stories of his arrogance before, so I didn't bother to be offended. Besides I had a book to read. He launched into this diatribe about cigarette smoking and how no one who didn't smoke couldn't possible understand just how wonderful the activity of smoking was. I don't remember what book he was touring for, but it was one of his novels. His "handler" tried to bring him back to the purpose of the tour a couple of times, but Paul was locked in on his subject. I can only assume he was not allowed to smoke with his meal and that may have triggered this lecture. I don't mean to make him sound like an ogre. He was charming, and brimming with intelligence appearing truly academic in his green tweed with leather arm patches and his glasses slightly askew on his face.

Theroux is best known for his train based travel books. I can still remember when I read The Great Railway Bazaar. I had never read anything like it before. His prose sparks with acerbic asides balanced by witty lines. He is not politically correct. He is opinionated and even at times the reader can tell his thoughts of a region are colored by one bad interaction with a native as he stepped off the train. He gets mad and can make an ass of himself. He shows his thorns and his spontaneous acts of kindness. The reader alternates between wanting to smack him in the head and shake his hand. AND yet I couldn't wait for his latest released travel book.

His fiction is a bit uneven. He has total misses and then he releases The Mosquito Coast arguable his best book and certainly his best known book. When I finally approached Theroux with my proffered offering. I launched into a impromptu speech about how much I loved his travel books. It miffed him. I had read somewhere that he was sensitive about his fiction. He saw himself as a novelist. He shoved my book back at me and dismissed me with a look at the next person in line behind me. I should have known better. I laughed all the way down the hallway and all the way out to my rental car in the parking lot. He was exactly who I expected him to be.

Ellis Hock spent four years in the Peace Corps in the African country of Malawi. He would have stayed longer, but two things happened simultaneously. The woman he was half in love with could not have sex with him because she was betrothed to another and his father dies. He moves back to Massachusetts and takes over the family business. While in Africa he had developed a hobby of catching dangerous snakes and letting them curl around his arm. The Malawians are deathly afraid of snakes and looked on his relationship with snakes as mystical. Back in Boston he has a friend that knows a woman having issues with her python. The smell of the snake, the feel of the snake sent his senses reeling back to his time in Africa.

The clothing business he inherited from his father was being decimated by imports and cheap competition. His wife had divorced him taking his family home in the process. His daughter is only interested in her inheritance; assuming, that despite the fact that she treats him with nothing short of disdain that he would still be willing to give her anything. He is 62 years old and he dreams of his time in Africa.

Hock chucks it all (not a difficult decision given his circumstances) and heads to Africa, back to the village of his greatest triumph Malabo. The village is located along the lower river and is still lagging far behind the rest of the country.

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He returns to find the school he had built decimated. The people are barely at subsistence living. He is famous, though most of the people he had known before are dead. Stories of his snake handling and his teaching have been passed down to the next generation. The head man assigns him a girl to help him, to wait on him hand and foot, and also provide him with any other assistance he desires.

He first really becomes aware of Zizi when he comes upon her wading in a pool.

The whole luminous process of the girl slowly lifting her chitenje wrap as she waded deeper into the still pool was one of the most teasing, heart-stirring visions he'd ever had. Yet she wasn't a tease. The cloth inched up with the rising water, and when it exposed the small honey-colored globes of her buttocks and she half turned to steady herself, the surface of the green pool brimmed against the patch of darkness at the narrowness of her body, a glint of gold, the skirt-cloth twisted just above it, Hock felt a hunger he had not known for forty years. He stared at the spangled sunlight in the gap between her legs.

As it becomes apparent that Hock is being held captive by the village. He fights his desires along with the old memories of his triumphs in this very place. The head man slowly bleeds him dry of money. As his circumstances become more and more dire with desperation he attempts to escape. He is recaptured. Hock looked around, wishing for a snake--a fat one, a viper--that he can seize and shake at them like a thunderbolt.

BlackMamba
African Black Mamba

Hock puts Zizi in grave danger in a last ditch effort to escape his captivity. He is tired and sick with malaria and beyond mere desperation. What we will give up to survive sometimes is very startling. He has become a ghost of the man he once was. As a woman of the village sums up: Your food has been eaten. Your money has been eaten. Your hope, too, all gone. We have eaten you.

Theroux does not shy away from the AIDS epidemic that has devastated the populations of Africa. There is a village of kids, throw aways, that have been orphaned by AIDS. The book has tones of Greene and Conrad. If you are fans of those writers you will not be disappointed with this book. Okay Paul, maybe you are more than just a great travel writer. Maybe, you are also a very capable novelist.
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Comments (showing 1-31 of 31) (31 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 29, 2012 12:08PM) (new)

What a prick! My gr profile states up front that I value kindness above rubies and intelligence. So let me say, "Fuck You, Mr. Theroux"-- on behalf of my friend, Jeffrey, who paid you a compliment and waited on your sorry ass to show up and bestow your "presence" on people who admired you. Theroux, I hope you read this review, so you can understand that you need to work on cultivating your humanity in addition to your writing. There is still time to be a better person, Theroux, but hurry up-- because those cigarettes that you love are shaving minutes off of your life as we write.

Anyway, I read Theroux's "Secret History" (autobiography) back in early 90's. I can't remember it well--so yeah, maybe he should stick to fiction.

Great review, Jeffrey. When you come to OKC in a few months, we will show the prick writers how nice readers from the Midwest are-- even if the people we read are real pricks.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Okay, having stood up for my good friend from Kansas--most important, I will say that this book does look good, and the guy is probably a good writer. I plan on reading it, but I will buy it used so the prick gets no royalties. If he ever comes to Midwest on book tour, I will be sure and tell him how much I love those choo-choo train books he writes and see if he wants to step outside. I'm a nonsmoker and I can take his winded ass down.


message 3: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Steve wrote: "Okay, having stood up for my good friend from Kansas--most important, I will say that this book does look good, and the guy is probably a good writer. I plan on reading it, but I will buy it used s..."

Somebody got into the Wheaties box, I see.

Happen I agree with Sweetiedarling, Jeffrey, and I think your good-humored response does you credit.


message 4: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris Jeffrey, excellent review -- although we are all ready to charge to your rescue now. :) I've had the same experience as you have had reading Theroux - love his travel books, very up and down with his fiction. I will need to give this one a try, though. After reading Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, I'm interested to see how he approaches Africa in fiction.

Re. your experience with Theroux at the reading, it's great that you can laugh at it and not take it too seriously, but it does seem to me that Theroux may just be taking his crotchety travel persona too seriously.

Steve, tons of good stuff in your comments, but this was my favorite: "I'm a nonsmoker and I can take his winded ass down."


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "What a prick! My gr profile states up front that I value kindness above rubies and intelligence. So let me say, "Fuck You, Mr. Theroux"-- on behalf of my friend, Jeffrey, who paid you a compliment ..."

The only thing I remember about "Secret History" is that he was absolutely obsessed with easy African girls.

Theroux may have had a bottle of red before his aperitif. He was certainly lubricated. Some writers really like to go on tour for books and others just hate it. I think I saw Theroux three times in all and every time it felt like he was playing a role. His traveler self from his books. Each time, somehow I miffed him despite my best efforts. One time I shoved a small stack in front of him and he asked me if I were a collector. I said yes. He signed my books, ignored me while talking to one of his friends he brought with him. RUDE!! I'm not sure what the proper response was supposed to be.

He has become a caricature of himself.

I appreciate your passionate defense my friend. I will count on it if I ever meet up with Mr. Theroux and he actually manages to insult me. You may be bailing me out of some jail across the pond.

Do read his books, despite his acerbic personality, he does write some good books.


Jeffrey Keeten Richard wrote: "Steve wrote: "Okay, having stood up for my good friend from Kansas--most important, I will say that this book does look good, and the guy is probably a good writer. I plan on reading it, but I will..."

Yes our friend known as Sweetiedarling is truly a great friend and next month we hope to meet up in his favorite Mexican restaurant in OKC. I will buy as a down payment for possible future legal services.

It was hard to be mad when he was exactly as I expected. If I had been suffering from a man crush I'm sure I would have been crushed, but for me he just seemed so juvenile I found it hard to take the whole thing serious.


message 7: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus It's not worth buying into the self-important worldview of people like Theroux. Glad you were clear in your mind about that from the get!

And quite practical to lubricate the channels of legal communication with food and booze (don't forget the margaritas and beer!) as one never knows when a criminal lawyer by training will come in handy.


Jeffrey Keeten Kris wrote: "Jeffrey, excellent review -- although we are all ready to charge to your rescue now. :) I've had the same experience as you have had reading Theroux - love his travel books, very up and down with h..."

Thank you Kris. A few years ago I also read Blinding Light: A Novel and found it a very interesting experience. I haven't read DSS, but own a copy and plan to read it soon.

I am so used to dealing with prima donnas in the book trade, those I worked with and those that actually wrote books. It really just tickled me how much he was as I expected him to be.

Thanks for reading the review and being such a good friend.


message 9: by Melki (new)

Melki Looks like some authors should just skip the book tours and stay at home working on the next book.


Jeffrey Keeten Melki wrote: "Looks like some authors should just skip the book tours and stay at home working on the next book."

Yeah it is my understanding that a lot of times it is in their book contracts to tour. I have had many, many more positive interactions with authors than I've had negative. Sometimes writers tour too long and get tired. Many of them can't wait to get back to writing.


message 11: by Melki (new)

Melki My only grumpy author encounter ever was with Anna Quindlen, of all people - but I suspect she was chomping at the bit to hop a plane and get back to her family.


message 12: by Joseph (last edited Jul 30, 2012 08:30PM) (new)

Joseph As commomplace as the myth about authors being more likely to be mentally ill than the rest of the population, is the belief we are, in addition, more misanthropic, arrogant, and self-absorbed.
Outsiders point to examples like Twain's pilloring of the "damned human race," as well as Faulkner's relief upon leaving his job at the post office where he had been "at the mercy of every fool with the price of a stamp." The list goes on.
Who can blame our brothers and sisters?
The single great thing about a writer's life is the writing itself. The rest of it...the pitching and the wooing... the travelling... the nepotism of one too many magazine editors... the onslaught of yet another horde of MFA's in Creative Writing... can wear one down.
I'm fortunate. I continue to enjoy being with others who love fine writing. Still, I'm keeping a list of a few folks I've met "in the life" just in case.If they don't change their ways, and fast, I just may send it to Uncle Vito in New York City.


message 13: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus

Heh. Couldn't resist. Be sure to tell Vito I make killer sauce.


Jeffrey Keeten Joseph wrote: "As commomplace as the myth about authors being more likely to be mentally ill than the rest of the population, is the belief we are, in addition, more misanthropic, arrogant, and self-absorbed.
O..."


I have a travel writing friend who refuses to meet certain writers he admires for fear that they will change the way he feels about their work. I think as readers sometimes we do conjure up impressions of who we feel the writer is from our reaction to his work. Sometimes writers on grueling tours are not always at their best. Sometimes the readers don't perform at their best either when meeting the writer. Paul Theroux was exactly as I expected him to be. I was not insulted, how can he insult me? He doesn't know me. As it was I got to meet him, hear him speak on a subject I did not expect, and got a story to tell.

When I met Pat Conroy he was also exactly what I expected wonderfully inquisitive about each of us and just so dang happy.


message 15: by Will (new)

Will Byrnes I had it in my head that I had read several of PT's books. I know I read Picture Palace, and I think I read Railway Bazaar. Somehow I have an image, a sense of the book or books as being outstanding, but it was so long ago that all that remains is fuzz. It is nice to be reminded that Theroux, whatever his personal quirks, is a top notch writer, covering interesting material. Imagine the devastation to culture across the planet if all the mean, arrogant, condescending, self-important, remote, odd or unpleasant artists were to be raptured away.


Jeffrey Keeten Will wrote: "I had it in my head that I had read several of PT's books. I know I read Picture Palace, and I think I read Railway Bazaar. Somehow I have an image, a sense of the book or books as being outstandin..."

Yes I totally agree Will. If Theroux was truly a nice guy there is no way he could write books with that edge that makes them so interesting to read. I think you would enjoy reading some Theroux.


message 17: by Mark (new)

Mark Late to the party as i am I would still wholeheartedly agree with Steve, Jeffrey. Theroux sounds like an arrogant wanker. Skill at writing doesn't remove the necessity of working at being a human being too. thanks for another great review.


Jeffrey Keeten Mark wrote: "Late to the party as i am I would still wholeheartedly agree with Steve, Jeffrey. Theroux sounds like an arrogant wanker. Skill at writing doesn't remove the necessity of working at being a human b..."

I'm so glad you enjoyed the review Mark. It would have been more jarring for me if I had went to the event thinking Theroux was this really nice guy. I had no illusions. It is all there in his writing. Theroux would probably agree with you that he is an "arrogant wanker" because he really doesn't have a problem with it.


message 19: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 Love Theroux, can't believe you've met him! Pillars of Hercules is still my absolute favourite and one of my top five travel books of all time.


Jeffrey Keeten Shovelmonkey1 wrote: "Love Theroux, can't believe you've met him! Pillars of Hercules is still my absolute favourite and one of my top five travel books of all time."

Yeah when I was located on the West Coast I was in his path for book signings. He is a great travel writer.


message 21: by Sketchbook (last edited Jun 24, 2013 05:00AM) (new)

Sketchbook To quote other GRs, 'What a prick.' I sus he was soused after his dinner. I'd have ripped apart his book before his very eyes. (He might have had a stroke).


Jeffrey Keeten Sketchbook wrote: "To quote other GRs, 'What a prick.' I sus he was soused after his dinner. I'd have ripped apart his book before his very eyes. (He might have had a stroke)."

He was so caught up in his lecture about smoking I'm not sure he would have noticed until you started throwing pieces at him. haha Another signing that I caught him at he was really grumpy not unlike how he is in his travel train books.


message 23: by Ruth (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ruth I enjoyed the review.

Theroux sounds nasty and crotchety. But if his view of life is anything like his view of Malawi in this book maybe that goes some way to explaining his bitterness and impatience with the human race.

Have you ever reviewed a Van Morrison concert? There's a chap who doesn't believe in wooing his fans! Still love his work though.


Jeffrey Keeten Ruth wrote: "I enjoyed the review.

Theroux sounds nasty and crotchety. But if his view of life is anything like his view of Malawi in this book maybe that goes some way to explaining his bitterness and impatie..."


Thanks Ruth! No I've never reviewed a concert of any kind. Paul might be crotchety, but I still look forward to each new book. I'm reading his new train travel book right now and maybe it is just because he is getting older, but man he is mellow in this one.


message 25: by Manu (new) - added it

Manu BEHATAREEN...(better than the best)


message 26: by Manu (new) - added it

Manu Hays off to you for not getting aaaangry at his behaviour. He would have created a life long enemy with such behaviour, with ordinary people..


message 27: by Manu (new) - added it

Manu Hats off (why y is near t on keyboard)


Jeffrey Keeten Manu wrote: "Hays off to you for not getting aaaangry at his behaviour. He would have created a life long enemy with such behaviour, with ordinary people.."

I'm sure that Theroux has made his share of enemies. He may be of the mindset to just outlive all of them. :-) I try not to bear grudges for bad behavior, frankly in this day and age, I'd be bearing a lot of grudges. I can respect his mind even if I can't always respect his behavior. He has carved out a literary niche for himself and I believe he will hold up well over time. Thanks Manu!


message 29: by Manu (new) - added it

Manu Always welcome Sir.
As Mr. Lincoln said something like
Enemy of a friend is enemy.
hehehe


message 30: by Manu (new) - added it

Manu I also enjoyed his book MY SECRET LIFE
but found his The Great Railway Bazaar full of prejudices. How could I stand it if he is patrolling all Indians with single cane?


Jeffrey Keeten Manu wrote: "I also enjoyed his book MY SECRET LIFE
but found his The Great Railway Bazaar full of prejudices. How could I stand it if he is patrolling all Indians with single cane?"


He definitely has his prejudices, but really he doesn't like people that much so he does generally get around to knocking everyone sooner or later. :-)


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