The Mosquito Coast
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981
I always find it interesting when different people make similar observations based on the same data, yet come to completely different conclusions. Allie Fox, the main character in Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast, seems at first to have much in common with many on today’s Dissident Right. He’s disgusted with the ubiquitous commercialization of modern society. He hates the exploitative nature of unregulated capitalism. He’s a staunch nationalist and is highly suspicious of globalism. Moreover, from the frank way he speaks, he appears to be a race realist. Maybe this doesn’t check all the boxes on the Dissident Right application form, but it’s still pretty good. Yet, as the novel plays out, we realize that Fox is not a man of the Right; rather, he’s a fiercely ambitious and pig-headed genius who either cannot or will not fit in anywhere. As the novel’s logline tells us, he ultimately pays a price for it after taking his family to a remote location in Central America called the Mosquito Coast.
The Mosquito Coast seems to belong to several genres of literature at once, and defies categorization as much as Allie Fox defies modern civilization. It is simultaneously a travel novel, a family drama, and, perhaps most fundamentally, an existential quest for . . . what? Innocence? Belonging? The right to re-enter Eden and start everything over again? The novel’s theme remains hard to pin down, and yet, to the author’s credit, never intrudes upon or weighs down the narrative.
The story opens in New England, where Allie works as an engineer for a local farmer. He keeps his kids out of school and cannot stop lecturing them, especially his oldest son Charlie, on his off-center views regarding economics and culture. He can’t stand the sight of all the billboards and storefronts. He hates how Americans mindlessly consume junk food and junk products. The price of gas is insultingly high. Crime is too rampant. And if it ain’t made in America, not only won’t he buy it, but he’ll harangue the poor sales clerk for trying to sell it to him. Hell, he’ll go to junkyards and make whatever he needs out of scrap and save a fortune. But his boss really gets his goat. Not only does the man let much of his asparagus crop rot in order to keep the prices high, he also rejects one of Allie’s most brilliant inventions: an icemaker that requires neither electricity or refrigerant.
Allie also lectures Charlie on the Central American migrant workers his boss employs. He repeatedly calls them savages and makes no bones about pointing out their manifest inferiority, their slovenly dress, their primitive manners, their high rate of disease, their complete lack of understanding, and so on. Never once does he mention race, but it is clear these are not white men he’s disparaging.
Up to this point, we have a perhaps somewhat cantankerous version of many of the folks reading this review. Race realist? Check. Nationalist? Check. Suspicious of unregulated capitalism? Checkmate.
So disgusted is he with modern society that Allie Fox vows to leave it. Just like that, he packs up his entire family – two boys, two girls, and his wife, who by the way is never given a name and goes only by “Mother” – and heads for Central America, not to visit but to start over. So this is where our protagonist breaks from the Right and embarks on his own strange journey. Early on, Charlie, who serves as the novel’s narrator, reveals his father’s feelings for the people with whom he would now be sharing his world:
He seemed both fascinated and repelled by them [the savages], and he communicated these feelings to me, telling me something interesting and then warning me not to be too interested. I had wondered how he knew these things about the men he called savages. He claimed he knew from experience, from living in wild places, among primitive people. He used the word savages with affection, as if he liked them a little for it. In his nature was a respect for wildness.
Now, where have we seen such philo-savagism before? From Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that’s where. Recently, I wrote an essay dealing with Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, and averred that:
For his entire career, Rousseau clung to the “the noble savage” myth which posits that in his original state Man is born free and enjoys the “majestic, celestial simplicity imparted to him by his Maker,” but in civilized society suffers the corruption of inequality, which leads to immorality, poverty, despotism, and slavery.
Allie Fox is basically the epitome of Rousseauian man: Not only does he yearn for the supposed innocence of the savage, he actually goes where the savages are and stakes his claim as a savage himself. Only, he’s not a savage. He is a leader with a rapacious intelligence who cannot stop idealizing savages as paragons of Man while denigrating the civilized as mere men. Shortly after arriving in Honduras, Allie buys a run-down and nearly abandoned town called Jeronimo. And, after buying all the raw materials and tools he needs, he enlists local Negroes and Indians to help him build a new civilization from scratch. His success is astounding. Within weeks, he has the place buzzing with all sorts of clever contraptions. His family and the natives work hard for him, and soon we see the standard of living shoot up, along with all the new crops and domiciles. As his crowning achievement, Allie constructs a giant icebox, the alpha version of the prototype which his boss rejected back home. He calls it “Fat Boy.” Ice, Allie believes, is civilization.
Despite always taking charge and never relinquishing control of his various projects, Allie Fox never puts on airs or assumes superiority. Oddly enough, the people love him for it. The fact that Allie is white and they are black or brown hardly gets a mention at all. For example, a black named Mr. Haddy takes the Foxes to Jeronimo on his little launch, and it’s only a matter of time before Allie commandeers the vessel out of sheer force of personality. In effect, he makes Mr. Haddy the Foxes’ own steadfast servant and friend, and he remains with them for most of the story.
Of course, this is ridiculous, and perhaps reveals the author’s Left-of-center bias. People are racial, people are corruptible, and people are vicious, especially in places like the Mosquito Coast. Given the rates of crime in that part of the world, at least some in the indigenous population would resent this white man’s intrusion and would be thinking of ways to kill him, rape his pretty wife, and exploit his four children. But none of this happens. In fact, the only people in the story who wish any real harm to the Foxes happen to be white. So for the story to work, we have to suspend our disbelief enough to accept all this, as well as the idea that a single white man can inspire the loyalty of two or three dozen primitive Central Americans for his peculiar civilizational project out of the sheer power of his genius and energy, and without any recourse to weapons, money, or the Bible. We are also required to believe that a man’s unnamed American wife in the late 1970s or early 1980s would allow her husband to drag her and her four small children to the ends of the Earth just because he needs to scratch a philosophical itch.
At the same time, such a book wouldn’t work with a happy ending. Allie Fox was not satisfied in New England, and it didn’t take long for him to feel the same way at Jeronimo. Why? Theroux, or Charlie, never really tells us. Perhaps it’s because by building a new civilization out of almost nothing, Allie was introducing an element of unwanted corruption. Allie gets it into his head to go to Seville, a place even more isolated and uncivilized than Jeronimo, and introduce ice to the natives there. What an accomplishment that would be!
At this point, it should be clear that Allie Fox is beginning to slip down a Rousseauian rabbit hole from which he will probably not return. Who cares if some half-naked savage in the jungle has never seen an ice cube before? Who cares if one has to climb a mountain and traverse a gaping valley to get to Seville? No, the point is for Allie to become the First Man. The first to do this, the first to do that. And if he’s not the First Man, well, he’ll make damn sure to be the last one.
The fact that Allie’s downfall stems from this egotistical jungle blunder tells us that his philosophical outlook is flawed. But it doesn’t tell us how, because the narrative sucks us in so completely, and because Theroux’s language makes the jungle and everything in it bristle, and also because Allie Fox is such a fascinating enigma. As a result, the readers get the pleasant job of figuring that out for themselves. And for my money, this little journey can only lead us back to the Right. As I discussed in my essay on Rousseau, the Noble Savage concept:
. . . serves today’s anti-white Left since it, at least at first glance, places races that until recently were considered savage (namely, blacks and indigenous Americans and Australians) on a higher moral plane than that of whites and exhorts whites to emulate the savages. Only by modeling civil society on the state of nature that the savage, in his simplistic wisdom, thrives in, can civilized Man throw off the yoke of inequality.
This is basically where Allie Fox comes from, despite his Right-wing trappings. Deep down, he’s a Leftist, because he hates civilization for not living up to his own whackadoo utopian standards. He believes humanity can be uplifted to his level, and this very idea possesses him in the same way that a slaveowner might think of a slave. He probably has an IQ of 160, and so it’s easy for him to lose patience with a society tailored for people who are 62.5 percent as smart as he is. But he forgets that society is the way it is because most people are 62.5 percent as smart as he is. It cannot be any other way because they cannot be any other way. This goes for individuals, clans, ethnicities, and indeed, races. People in the state of nature build societies that suit their needs, and those needs are determined by where and how far along the people are on the human evolutionary timeline.
This is Conservatism 101, the bedrock of the Right. And when Allie Fox tries to change this behemoth of Truth, he effectively goes mad. All because he couldn’t step out of himself to view humanity as it really is.
In an earlier article, I wrote this:
I’m reminded of the wonderful biopic of Temple Grandin, the autistic celebrity and scientist who, according to the movie, has the freakish ability to visualize complex mathematical equations in her mind. When a college teacher asks in disbelief if she really has such an ability, she looks puzzled and responds, “Doesn’t everybody?”
Such a tragic mistake!
Before, when I said that Allie never assumes his superiority over others, that’s true only for the blacks and Indians who work for him. His family is another matter. Once things become very difficult for the family late in the story, when they’re isolated and beset upon by the elements, he becomes quite autocratic and cruel with them, especially with his younger son Jerry. And because he’s the genius who keeps everyone alive, no one dares challenge him. So Allie Fox is not as pure as he thinks he is; and this is something that Charlie understands better than anyone. As if he’s God, Allie wants to start civilization all over again. In fact, he repeatedly says that God quit a day early and left Creation incomplete. Of course, it’s up to Allie to finish the job. This goes far beyond the Leftist weakness for egalitarianism and utopianism. No, this is hubris, a human folly which pre-dates all of our modern political partitions.
And Charlie knows it. Where Allie sees innocent noble savages, Charlie sees stupid and lazy aboriginals. Where Allie sees opportunity, Charlie sees poverty and suffering.
We trudged past the man with the net to where the shacks were banked against the beach. People lived in them, though they were no better than woodsheds and would not have done for chicken houses because of the loosely slatted boards and leaky-looking roofs. But humans were in them, cooking and sleeping – I saw their fires and their hammocks. Walking was hazardous here because of the shacks. From each back door there was a furrow of black water stretched across the sand – slime, suds, and worse spewing into the sea. The beach was their junkyard and the sea was their sewer.
It was into this junkyard and sewer that Allie Fox plunged his family. Paul Theroux’s masterful language takes us there along with them, and his relentless narrative makes us wonder if they will ever get out alive. As with all great stories, this one thrills, but it also hurts. And what hurts the most is knowing that there are thousands of men out there like Allie Fox who are wasting their genius on hopelessly primitive civilizations while giving up hope on the advanced one we already have.
Note on the 1986 film adaptation directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford and River Phoenix
I found The Mosquito Coast film excellent in all respects. A large part of this review can be appreciated even if one has only seen the movie, but has not read the novel. The performances are uniformly strong, especially Ford’s as Allie Fox and Conrad Roberts’ as Mr. Haddy. The rise and fall of Jeronimo contains many riveting and unforgettable scenes. Incidents which appear fleetingly in the novel, such as Mother’s making shirts for the workers out of flour sacks, become exciting visual motifs in the film. Paul Schrader’s script remains as faithful as possible to the novel. Whenever it cuts corners on the narrative, it does so reasonably, either to tighten the story or make it more cinematic. It only breaks from the novel by not having Allie refer to the migrant workers and Jeronimo residents as savages, except on a few occasions in deprecation. This seriously downplays the Rousseauian themes in the film and is one of the reasons why the novel, in my opinion, edges it out as an endearing work of art.