Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

He said, "It's savage and superstitious to accept the world as it is.  Fiddle around and find a use for it!"  God had left the world incomplete, he said.  It was man's job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it and finish it.  I think that was why he hated missionaries so much: because they taught people to put up with their earthly burdens.  For Father, there were no burdens that couldn't be fitted with a set of wheels, or runners, or a system of pulleys.

But instead of improving the world, he said, most people just tried to improve God.  "God--the deceased God--was a hasty inventor of the sort you find in any patent office.  Yes, He had a great idea in making the world, but He started it and moved on before He got it working properly.  God is like the boy who gets his top spinning and then leaves the room and lets it wobble.  How can you worship that?  God got bored," Father said.  "I know that kind of boredom, but I fight it."

Charlie Fox's father--that's what he's called, Father, by everyone, not just his children--is a brilliant but arrogant man.  He keeps his kids out of school, not wanting them to be corrupted by consumerist ideals.  He is a gifted inventor, working as a kind of handyman for a wealthy asparagus farmer in Massachusetts.  But he believes that he is the only one who sees America, and the world, for what they are, a man more capable than God himself, because God's inventions never seem to work properly.  It's the kind of arrogance that can only be sustained by brilliance, because it often seems like he might actually be able to back up the things he says about himself.

Increasingly disgusted by the commercialism of the developed world, Father decides to take his family to the wilderness of Honduras.  He's something like Sam Pollit of The Man Who Loved Children, in that his all-enveloping narcissism acts like a black hole for his family to fall in, but whereas Pollit is all progressive fantasy and high-mindedness, Father is closest to the kind of doomsday preppers you see stocking their bunkers with creamed corn and assault rifles.  In Honduras, he tells his children that America has fallen into war and been destroyed:

"Right now," Father said dreamily, "someone over there in America is painting yellow lines on a road, and someone else is wrapping half an onion in a blister of supermarket cellophane, or putting an electric squeezer down the garbage disposal and saying, 'It's busted.'  Someone's just opened a can of chocolate-flavored soup in a beautiful kitchen, because he can't get his car started, to eat out.  He really wanted a cheeseburger.  Someone just poisoned himself with a sausage of red nitrate, and he's smiling because it tasted so good.  And they're all cursing the president.  They want him re-tooled."

For a while, Father's project is a smashing success.  Deep in the Honduran jungle, he makes a functioning village with scraps and raw materials, bringing comfortable housing and irrigation.  His crowning achievement is a giant refrigerator that uses heat power, which he calls "Fat Boy."  But the resonance with the names given to the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan--Little Boy and Fat Man--foreshadows not only the fate of the refrigerator but Father's entire project.

The narrator, Charlie, is thinly written.  As the oldest, he's both suspicious of his Father's abilities, but also captivated by them, but swings between these two extremes according to Theroux's needs.  And yet, it's hard to imagine another character as vivid or powerful as Charlie's father, who sucks in every available breath of air.  (The fact that Sam Pollit wasn't the only strong character in Christina Stead's novel is one of the things that makes it so incredible.)  The novel is exactly as compelling as the character is, and it's hard to look away as both hurtle toward disaster.

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