Terrifying and Pure: The Mosquito Coast
Story by David Rutter
On a rainy day, on a family holiday in my mid-teens I spotted the image of Harrison Ford, long-haired and bespectacled, on the cover of a novel I had not heard of, by an author whose surname I could not pronounce. The synopsis on the back cover convinced me to buy it – Honduras, the jungle, the Mosquito Coast – all words that brought exotic images to the mind of a boy from the bush on the edge of Sydney. The novel brought the steamy jungle to me. At the time I had no idea who Paul Theroux was, and now having read many books by the author, I can understand why I was captivated.
The book is based around the Fox family – Allie or “Father”, the enigmatic, intelligent and dictatorial leader of the family, “Mother”, and the children, Charlie (the narrator), Jerry, Alice and Clover. Fox, or “Father” as the family call him, takes the family from Massachusetts to Honduras seeking purity – a world untouched by the greedy, wasteful America, and uncorrupted by modern inventions.
The book is full of observations of the wastefulness, greed, and complacency of modern society – of people who accept mediocrity in the products they buy and use, and the addiction to products that seemingly make their lives easier. The result is a lazy and obese society that simply cannot be saved: one that Allie Fox is convinced will collapse into civil war at any moment. Allie is sure he knows the answers to America’s problems, and is similarly convinced he can create the perfect society in a place which has not yet been corrupted. It is interesting to look back on a book written almost thirty years ago and see the current trends towards organic foods, “slow-food”, and a resurgence in the popularity of locally manufactured products.
The story, though, wasn’t what captivated me, although it played its part. It was the jungle, an environment so far removed from the dry bush of north-western Sydney. Theroux paints vivid and brutally honest images of the jungle – a place with both life and sickness and death in equal amounts. A place both pure and corrupt. It was obvious that the writer had been there, and not imagined what it was like from afar. The landscape: the jungle, the villages, the rivers, the coast – all seemed both familiar and exotic at once. For a boy who had seen only temperate eucalyptus forests and coastal beaches, a book set in a tropical rainforest was an otherworldly escape.
The Mosquito Coast is a journey which takes the reader from temperate Massachusetts, with open farmland, fields of asparagus, poolrooms, tractors and scarecrows to the south and to the sea. In the beginning, with Allie Fox’s discontentment, frustration and disgust, the mood is stifled yet expectant, but once the Fox family is on its way, especially when leaving US shores, the sense of freedom and adventure begins to dominate. The family leave with almost nothing (just as Allie likes it), and are ready to begin anew. We are then plunged into a new and exciting world – a wild world where life seems to be free. The journey then goes up a river of the mosquito coast – a river which seems to threaten to punch a hole into the boat at any moment. We are in the jungle – where life can seem more difficult, but also free. Allie no longer has anyone to answer to, the children need only work hard. Allie descends into delusional and obsessive behaviour – convincing himself (and trying to convince his family) that the United States has been destroyed. On the Mosquito Coast, he is a charismatic white man, going back would be an admission of failure on many levels, and something he will not stomach. He forces the family into increasingly dangerous situations. In the end, the family is almost hostage to him as he desperately tries to keep them with him as he tries to survive. The Mosquito Coast becomes a prison for them.
As their life in the jungle reaches the highs and lows, we then learn about what it means to live downriver at a lagoon, and what it means to live upriver. Allie’s realisation that “dead things float downriver” is actually at odds with the common notion that to live near the sea in the tropics is (for many people) to live in paradise.
In Allie’s world, Mother Nature provides all the answers to our needs. Allie maligns Christians for seeking answers in the bible – he sees all the answers he needs in the designs of Mother Nature. By immersing his family in it they learn all the skills needed to live a more pure existence. Mother Nature is not a benevolent being bestowing any level of comfort or protection upon the Fox family. They experience nature with all the discomfort, danger, and beauty that such an environment brings. And with it, the book serves what is for me is a great lesson: that nature is beautiful, terrifying, honest, and pure.