The recent public debate over who “built it”—“it” meaning American businesses, or infrastructure, or American society, or Mitt Romney’s grin—has a lineage that dates back to the dawn of the republic. The debate even has its own literature, novels that ask whether this is a nation of Ahabs or Babbitts, Thomas Sutpens or Stepford Wives. What, in other words, are the limits of rugged individualism? At what point is Manifest Destiny fulfilled—and what are we supposed to do with ourselves then?
Few American novels have addressed these questions more directly than The Mosquito Coast. Paul Theroux wrote it in the gloomy period defined by Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, still the most haunted, existential speech in American presidential history (“We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives ...”). The novel was published in 1982, in the midst of the severe recession that began shortly after Ronald Reagan took office and lasted until the middle of his first term. Theroux’s Ahab, Allie Fox, is a man of this time: a Harvard dropout, father of four, and an amateur inventor with an intense disgust for the state of the nation. The book begins with a rant by Allie about “the awfulness of America—how it got turned into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger-zone of rabid scavengers and criminal millionaires and moral sneaks.”
But Allie is just getting started. He deplores the stultification of the political process (“America’s in gridlock”); its disposable culture (“Selling junk, buying junk, eating junk”); and its corporate greed (“Dentists in the States had an interest in candy factories…Doctors owned hospitals. Detroit kept bankrolling oil-wells. America had terminal cancer!”). The only option left for a patriot, he decides, is to flee. Without warning he quits his job as an overseer of a Massachusetts farm and moves his family to a place that doesn’t exist on any maps, a patch of jungle in the interior of Honduras. There the Foxes will start again, Adam and Eve, creating a new civilization from scratch. “That’s stone age,” warns one character, when he learns of Allie’s plans. “Like America before the pilgrims landed. Just Indians and woods. There’s no roads. It’s all virgin jungle.” This is an early suggestion that Allie is not leaving the United States so much as traveling back in time.
Allie’s misadventure begins innocently enough. Using his wife and children as indentured servants, Allie clears the brush, plants a vegetable garden, and builds a house. He constructs a water pump out of coconut cups, and uses halved lengths of bamboo to create gutters for sewage. All of this, however, is merely preparation for his greatest invention: a complicated network of pipes, valves, and vats encased in a giant wooden structure the size of a tall building. When a fuse is lit, this machine turns water into ice. Allie calls it “Fat Boy,” an unsubtle portmanteau of the nicknames—“Fat Man” and “Little Boy”—given the bombs dropped over Japan. Fat Boy, like the atomic bomb, is both a miracle of human ingenuity and a force of annihilation. It runs on combustible poison—ammonia and pressurized hydrogen. “Ice,” says Allie, “is civilization.” But Allie’s civilization, as it rises from the weeds and mud, bears an unsettling resemblance to the one he’s left behind.
It dawns on Charlie, Allie’s oldest son and the novel’s narrator, that his father’s inventions are not noble at all, but designed in service of creature comforts. “He invented for his own sake! He was an inventor because he hated hard beds and bad food and slow boats and flimsy huts and dirt.” Allie’s unifying theory of technology is that the planet is an imperfect product, full of inefficiencies and faulty parts. It is man’s job to improve it, to do “a slightly better job than God.” Cranes and derricks improved the human arm, ball bearings improved the hip joint, and eyeglasses improved the eye. The intricate plumbing within Fat Boy is an improvement on human intestines. “You feel a little like God,” Allie often says, in his flights of creative fervor, but he is only pretending to be humble. He really does believe he is God. He has dreams of clearing the jungle, straightening its rivers, taming the wild animals. He has dreams, in other words, of turning the Mosquito Coast into Massachusetts.
The settlement’s original frontier spirit yields to a monomaniacal tyranny that tolerates no rivals. Most threatening to Allie are the missionaries who travel through the jungle converting the natives. He is furious at having to compete with Christianity for mastery of the savages’ souls. Power-mad and delusional, Allie meddles in other settlements, attacks missionaries, and even blows up an airplane. He has brought civilization to the Mosquito Coast, he reasons, so he can destroy it too. When Fat Boy inevitably detonates, killing several men and destroying the settlement, the explosion seems as apocalyptic as a hydrogen bomb.
Theroux’s novel gives itself easily, even promiscuously, to allegory. Allie’s misadventure can be read as a warning of the limitations of the American way—the folly of our imperial adventures, the pitfalls of technological progress, and the corrosive hubris of patriotism. But what emerges finally is a portrait of America as a young, blustery child, with poor short-term memory, destined to repeat the same mistakes on an ever-increasing scale, until it brings about its own ruin. Just because we built it, doesn’t mean we can’t destroy it.
Other notable novels published in 1982:
The Running Man by Richard Bachman
A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail Godwin
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
Bech Is Back by John Updike
Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike
National Book Award:
Rabbit is Rich by John Updike
Bestselling novel of the year:
The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2012. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin