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.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 [b:The Kingdom by the Sea|72210|The Kingdom by the Sea |Paul Theroux|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320870098s/72210.jpg|2047474].
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 [b:The Great Railway Bazaar|63689|The Great Railway Bazaar|Paul Theroux|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348947794s/63689.jpg|811411]. 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 [b:The Mosquito Coast|130520|The Mosquito Coast|Paul Theroux|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348949730s/130520.jpg|212779] 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.
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.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.