Allie Fox is a brilliant inventor. He's also a deeply paranoid man who is disenchanted with American materialism and conformity. Abandoning his old life, he believes he can build a better existence for his family in the Honduran jungle. But Allie's utopian ideals are more easily imagined than realized, and soon his dark obsessions lead his family down an extremely angerous path.
The main character, Allie, is a complicated character- he's mechanically brilliant, hates commercialization and consumerism with the heat of a thousand suns, and is by turns wildly charismatic and wildly off-putting to the people he meets. Allie isn't a thoroughly realistic character, but I don't think Theroux intended for him to be one, instead he's a representation of certain characteristics cranked up to eleven. It's quickly apparent that, although he's smart in some ways, that intelligence has led to him developing ideas and expectations about the world that are unrealistic, but which he's entirely committed to. With this being the case you know early on that this trip he's making isn't going to end well, which gives the entire thing an air of foreboding, but which also steals some of the dramatic tension from the story: even when things are going surprisingly well, you see that there's still a big chunk of the book left and you just know that things aren't going to stay well forever.
The book takes you on an interesting journey, but there were three problems I had with it: First, Theroux doesn't place any trust in the reader. A segment that exemplifies this is when the narrator, Charlie, is newly arrived in the jungle and finds a bird caught in a spider web. It is explained that this is a bird that isn't native to the area, and therefore wasn't wary and got caught. Charlie muses that maybe his family is like the bird, not a local and therefore not prepared for what they've gotten themselves into. Theroux doesn't trust his readers to draw the parallel themselves, and instead spells it out, something that recurs throughout the work. Near the end of the book Charlie explicitly explains what he thinks makes his father Allie tick, instead of leaving it to the reader to suss out.
Second, there are problems with characterization. Charlie is supposed to be 13-14, but his narrative voice seems closer to that of a ten-year-old. That's a minor complaint though compared to my main one, which is that the mother character doesn't make any sense as Theroux portrays her. This is a woman who lets her husband take her and her children away from a house and a relatively comfortable life in New England, give up everything, move to a Third World country, and set up camp in the middle of a jungle. The only way that this makes sense is if she either agrees with her husband that this is a good idea, or if she is the type of person that defers to her husband in all things. Instead of having her be as anti-consumerism as her husband or a complete pushover, however, Theroux tries to portray the mother as capable and more down-to-earth than her husband, not subservient to him, but also willing to drag her young children across the world and risk their lives repeatedly for something she doesn't believe in. The mother not completely devoid of a backbone that Theroux tries to portray would have told her husband "you can continue this trip or you can be with your family, but not both" at the first sight of La Ceiba. With the mother character Theroux tries to have it both ways, and the result isn't satisfying.
Third, I don't think there's much insight here to take away from the book. I think it's a side-effect of Allie being composed of characteristics cranked up to 11 that the trip he takes his family on isn't a source for relatable life lessons, at least not ones that aren't trite. The United States isn't perfect, but it's pretty good in a lot of ways. Just because a place hasn't been touched by industrialization doesn't make it the garden of eden. A simpler way of life doesn't necessarily make that life more satisfying, or easier, or better. People who are overconfident in their own abilities are in for a rude awakening. Children worship their parents and make excuses for them, but parents aren't perfect. Anti-consumerism taken to the utmost extremes isn't realistic or the way that we're going to solve our problems. It's all so obvious. There are hundreds of other lessons you can pull out of this book, but are any of them that poignant? I'm trying to think of something this book has to say that was new to me, but I'm coming up blank. I just recently read a book by Ismail Kadare, an Albanian writer who makes Albania seem awe-inspiring in some ways, but in other ways just rather awful. It's a much more nuanced and interesting touch than Theroux showcases here with Honduras, and it's much more conducive to new ideas.
If you're looking for a book satirizing the type of people who say "I'm going to move to Canada!" or the people who put the poor or the simple life on a pedestal, The Mosquito Coast does that, in a way. It's also a book that really gives you someone to root against, a main character that isn't realistic but who is still very interesting. The book has got some problems, though, and don't expect to finish it having gained some new life lesson.
My main disappointment is the Mother is an intriguing but largely unexplored character, but given the choice to have the teenage son as narrator that would be fair enough. Also the father really had to dominate the book just like he dominated their lives.
Thoroughly recommend it!
I'm looking forward to renting the video, but I wonder without the internal dialog just how successful it will be, the often farcical plot may dominate explorations of the characters. I also wonder how they could portray the mother without further understanding how the hell she put up with this mad man for so long!
Their adventures in the jungle are related to us by his eldest son Charlie, 14 years old, who admires his father but at the same time feels uneasy about him, embarrassed at times. Because of the way outsiders react to him.
I thought it was interesting to see how in a way Allie turns exactly into the very thing he despises. Despite his anti-American feelings, he behaves like a typical western colonialist disrespecting local people and culture, local knowledge about nature and even disrespecting nature and human life. He turns out to be a raving dictator, and his family is like a closed sect. Those who dare to challenge his authority are being threatened to be cast away from the family and the love of the family.
A critical note concerns the mother in this story. I thought this character to be rather unbelievable. It's quite unclear why she follows Allie with such devotion and without questions asked. She is a stereotypical obedient woman without a mind of her own. Does such a woman exist?
The character of Allie Fox is one I will always remember. Father is a narcissist with a messianic complex, a genius with an inflated ego. He charms people while insulting them. People love him and fear him all at the same time. He is always right until he finally, like all human beings, makes a mistake and it drives him insane.
Charlie is the narrator of the novel. He loves his father and looks to him for safety and security. He believes in his father and all of his crazy schemes. Father bullies Charlie and torments him telling him it will make him a better man. It takes a long time for the Charlie to realize that Father is out of his mind and to try to save himself and his family.
I enjoyed the use of foreshadowing in this novel. The most memorable is when Charlie wakes up in the middle of the night and realizes Father isn’t in their house. He goes out to find him and sees the field workers putting up a scarecrow. He thinks they have killed father and roped him to a cross. Later in one of Father’s delirious rants he yells “Jesus is a scarecrow!”
The main idea in this novel is you shouldn’t play God. Father believes God is a like a small boy who is playing with a top and then leaves the room. Father is the one who can keep that top spinning. Everything goes well at the beginning of the novel. The whole family works hard day in and day out to build Father’s dream of a home, farm and an ice house. Once they start producing ice they go to a small impoverished village to show them the miracle only to discover that missionaries have already showed them ice. In fact missionaries are everywhere. This makes Father very angry because he wants to bring ice to true savages that have never seen a civilized man. Allie wants to be the savior of the savages.
I can never understood people who go to another country and force their way of life on the natives. The natives have been living there for years, they know the best way to live. When Father is away and Mother takes over the Fox children start playing with the native children who teach them how to survive. They build their own village, learn what plants are edible and enjoy their time away from Father. Mother learns how the cook meals like the ladies who live near them. This is the way you survive, through adapting.
I haven’t read such a literate novel in a long time. The characters are fully formed and engaging. The story is full of deep meaning. The ending is a bit savage, but appropriate. I highly recommend this book.
I liked the book, but found it to be a bit too long. The plot could be really disjointed at times too.
In a breathtaking adventure story, the paranoid and brilliant inventor Allie Fox takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle, determined to build a civilization better than the one they've left. Fleeing from an America he sees as mired in materialism and conformity, he hopes to rediscover a purer life. But his utopian experiment takes a dark turn when his obsessions lead the family toward unimaginable danger.
I picked this book up at a book sale..
By sally tarbox on 17 May 2017
Featuring an unforgettable lead-character, this was a pretty good read.
13 year old Charlie Fox narrates the account of his family's exodus from Massachusetts - where his eccentric inventor father decries the American way of life- for the jungles of Honduras. Here, Allie Fox plans on a simpler way of life, with himself and his inventions firmly at the centre. Even religion cannot be allowed to put him in second place: " 'Pray if you must', said Father, 'but I'd rather you listened to me.' His children's achievements are always denigrated lest they detract from his own.
But as the adventure starts to pall, the children realise their father isn't infallible...
Really enjoyed this to start with but felt it went on a tad too long, with the floods, vultures and an increasingly irrational Father. But certainly a memorable novel.