EVER SINCE THE DAY Washington Irving disembarked in Liverpool to sketch the English countryside. American writers have ventured to foreign locales in search of a sensibility they have felt they could only capture abroad. Henry Adams and Ezra Pound. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald all passed their moments in Europe against the backdrop of a culture that far overshadowed their own.
Cocksure and with a track record of travel that includes a stint in the Peace Corps. Paul Theroux, too, has styled himself in the mold of those American writers who demand consideration of their contribution to the literature of travel. He writes about the world as if a were a marvelously crafted gadget to be pulled apart and played with, something wondrous in all its aspects yet entirely susceptible to the grasp of his imagination.
Another travel writer, one who confined his searchings to the space within the borders of his native country, may actually provide perhaps the best prototype of Theroux's style. Jack Kerouac broke out into the open road in the mid-50s with the coitus-and narcotic-addled bliss of a youth set free from the narrow confines of hometown and ceremonial life. Theroux has also journeyed on the open road, but on a far more expansive one. Encompassing both adventure and introspection, he has recorded journeys from Victoria Station to Siberia, and back, in The Old Railway Bazaar; and from South Boston to the other up of America in The Patagonian Express. Calm and without the intensity of Kerouac, both books afford homebodies a glimpse of the world away from the crackerjack, automatic world of T.V. sets and interest rates.
THEROUX'S INCLINATION is obvious. Not particularly interested in the suburban soap-opera life of America or the decaying, over-exploited one of Europe, he has taken to the more exotic of the world's climates and locales. From the chatter and odor of the Howrah station in Calcutta to the more sympatico setting of Costa Rica, Theroux finds himself obsessed with a world beyond the borders of affluence and gratuitous soul-searchings. His proposition is pretty much a remedy for boredom--his own, and that of us who bother to take the train-rides with him. For what Paul Theroux writes about is little more than what Paul Theroux sees. His style unobjectionable and offhand. Theroux finds little more to say than what is most obvious. And that in itself can be entertaining especially if it's what you pick up a book for.
But his newest book. The Mosquito Coast, departs from the style of the "I" travelogue on which Theroux has made his reputation. His story is that of a testy central Massachusetts farmer so disenchanted and disgusted with the colossal wasteland he finds in America that he ups and leaves for Honduras. There, he intends to raise his children according to the virtues of hard work and discipline.
"I never wanted this," Allie Fox says of the culture of obsolescence and indulgence. "I'm sick of everyone pretending to be Dan Deaves in his L.L. Bean Moccasins, and his Dubbelwares, and his Japanese Bucksaw--all these fake frontiersman with their chuckwagons full of Twinkies and Wonderbread and aerosol cheesespread. Get out the Duraflame log and the plastic cracker barrel, Dan, and let's talk of self-sufficiency!"
It's probably to Theroux's credit that he's picked up on an idea everyone's recognized for a long time--that something's wrong with America. It's probably more to his credit that he doesn't attempt to find it out on the open road like Kerouac. The country's illness, as diagnosed by protagonist Allie, stems from the uppity attitude people have towards work and education. ("Can't find a Harvard graduate who can change the tire on his car.") In Central America Allie thinks he will find an unspoiled land, untainted by the wretchedness of sloth and religion ("If God hadn't rested the seventh day. Maybe he would have finished the job.") So it's typical that Theroux seeks solutions to America's malaise in a way that allows him to indulge himself on the descriptions and detail of starting life in a world far away from the McDonalds's and Three's Company's that he deplores.
But the excursion emerges for Allie's transplanted family as a massive exercise in futility. As the children watch their father's control on reality wither under the hot sun of the jungle, and as the realization comes to all that life in America really wasn't all that bad, the family goes on weathering emotional storms skin to those of the original pilgrims in their native Massachusetts. Theroux shows remarkable discipline throughout the narrative. Telling the story through Charlie, the 14-year-old oldest son. Theroux ineluctably cases into an intelligent, but effortless simplicity. Some scenes have tremendous appeal, especially those where the children, left on their own, take refuge in recalling the luxuries of the life they have left behind.
THEROUX'S NOT A BAD writer, and judging from the bestseller lists the story told in The Mosquito Coast, if not the explicit allegory, has quite an appeal to modern audiences. But if Theroux had really been interested in probing the soul of America, it would have been more revealing to explain how a character like Allie Fox managed to survive the ravages of an undisciplined society. To understand what's wrong with America. John Uplike's probably a better bet. His latest, Rabbit is Rich, stays within the society of inflation that Theroux can only deal with by escaping. It's a book about how real people live. For an intelligent, incisive opinion on the shape of people's minds in other lands, a friend of Theroux's--V.S. Naipaul--is far preferable. Theroux's vision of America as his wanderings across the World will probably find its way onto more night tables and commander trains than either, though. But if the open road is really where the soul of America lies--and Theroux apparently thinks it does--it would be far better to stick with Kerouse.