There is something about the approach of a presidential election that turns even good men into cranks. The prospect of a power transfer to some lying, venal, half-wit politician reminds us all that we are unheralded experts in statecraft, economics, warfare and technology. This year, the most severely principled among us may threaten to bolt for the border if whichever candidate we particularly fear or detest is elected. In 1981’s The Mosquito Coast, Paul Theroux mined this sky-is-falling impulse for high drama, sending his America-weary hero, Allie Fox, into the jungles of Honduras to forge a primitive utopia with his family. Few books better capture the arrogance and anxiety of the I-know-better personality, or imbue it with greater humanity.
The Fox family is fleeing some of the typical crank’s favorite bugbears: cheap, disposable goods (Kmarts and Toyota dealerships); processed foods (“chocolate-flavored soup,” say, or “a sausage of red nitrate”); dependence on religion and entertainment; and an erosion of self-reliance. Allie’s four children are home-schooled; the reader has ample reason to believe that they are better off for that. Tiny Polski, the odd-sounding owner of the Massachusetts asparagus farm where Allie works as a manager and inventor, leavens his disdain for Allie with a grudging respect, calling him “the worst kind of pain in the neck, a know-it-all who’s sometimes vight.”
Those words are spoken to Charlie—a young teen, and Allie’s eldest child—who narrates The Mosquito Coast. Soon thereafter, Charlie begins to learn that “pain in the neck” may be a painful understatement. Allie drags his family aboard a boat called the Unicorn, on which he proceeds to alienate both a missionary family, the Spellgoods, and the captain himself. In one deeply discomfiting set piece, Allie makes Charlie risk his life climbing the ship’s shrouds “because doing it is the only way of not being afraid of it.” This is but a tiny foretaste of the misery and jeopardy to which Allie will subject his family to make a point.
Having landed in Central America, Allie attempts to build a microcosm of civilization—a superior civilization—in Jeronimo, a barely there town that becomes the staging ground for experiments in construction, farming, irrigation and, memorably, refrigeration. He works his family, especially his sons, to the point of exhaustion, often administering mind-bending punishments to correct their fear or lack of faith. The pièce de résistance of his tropical fief is a massive device for, as he puts it, turning fire into ice. It is called Fat Boy, a nod to the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Allie has even less love for the “Nipponese” than he does for his fellow Americans.)
Yet his glorified ice-cube maker does little to impress the natives, both because they have been exposed to technology (and “hice”) by missionaries already and because Allie’s ice keeps melting before he can drag it into the steaming jungle hinterlands. When the going is good, he calls Robinson Crusoe or Henry David Thoreau to mind. When things become desperate, he more closely resembles the mad hero of Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, or even Captain Ahab. It is hard to root for a character who puts his own family at risk of starvation, disease, drowning and emotional breakdown, but Allie is so vital and so idealistic that the reader excuses much of his folly or excess, at least at the outset.
In less capable hands, Allie’s slow slog toward catastrophe might have become the stuff of crude allegory, with the ranting, cigar-chomping Allie as overweening Icarus or, truer to his ice-from-fire sorcery, Prometheus. But Mr. Theroux has given us a man, not a symbol; a finely shaded psychological portrait, not a textbook type. In Allie’s enthusiasms and frustrations, his wish that the world could be different, we see something of ourselves. Alas, in the best of his diatribes—so spittle-flecked and vivid that they might have been cribbed from documentary footage—we see something of our worst qualities, as well, our impatience and stubborn certainty and lack of empathy.
The Mosquito Coast has in common with Mr. Theroux’s travel writing an extraordinary feel for visual, tactile and regional detail. We see each jungle scene in vivid Technicolor. We feel ourselves pummeled by rain or knee-deep in sucking mud, and experience every mosquito or sand-flea bite. As we watch Allie grunt and sweat his way toward subduing (or failing to subdue) nature red in tooth and claw, we feel a very modern ambivalence about technology: How much is enough? How much is too much?
There is another ambivalence at the heart of The Mosquito Coast. Though Allie Fox, the arrogant genius with “nine patents” and “six pending,” is far and away the book’s star, its narrator brilliantly chronicles an experience few of us escape: the gradual discovery that our parents are not gods, not infallible, not in control. How we adjust our opinions of them—how we vacillate between love and disappointment and even, in Charlie Fox’s case, outright fear—is explored by Mr. Theroux in haunting detail. Coming of age, his novel says, is finding out how much of life we must navigate entirely on our own. Forget the jungles of Honduras. Freedom is the real wilderness.