The Fiction Side of Travel Writing: Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast is A reminder that stories--even travel stories--don't have to be true to reveal truths of the world.
Well, six months into this year’s tour of travel books and I’ve taken on a novel. Paul Theroux is a legend in the field of travel writing, both for his fiction and non-fiction accounts of the world, and The Mosquito Coast is perhaps his most well-known book. And, rightfully so. Like many from this year’s list of recommendations, this book doesn’t need my seal of approval, but I’ve come to give it anyway.
The Mosquito Coast is the tale of an American family leaving a working class life behind to try their hand in Honduras. More so, an American family follows a big-thinking Father into the jungle. I must admit straight off: There is a movie, an 80s classic starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix. I’ll also say that, having seen the movie only increased my enjoyment. Ford does such a stellar job with the character of Father, an opinionated anti-capitalist inventor, that it was him I pictured thundering through the Father’s decrees.
And, it’s Father who drives this book. He waxes philosophically about the decay of America, what people need to be doing, his own prowess and achievements, and how he’ll improve the jungle communities of Honduras through ice and ingenuity—all topics that pique my curiosity. In a haunting way, the assuming declarations of Father ring familiar to my ears. In many ways, they sound sensible. Ultimately, his madness reminds me not to go too far or get too vocal, or at least to think first. He’s insightful and inspiring but, in the end, equally as difficult to believe in.
The story itself is a great look at the lives and possibilities of rural communities, and especially recognition of why life there is the way it is. It’s an interesting foray into a dream many of us travelers have, that moment where we finally pack it up and start our own world on brawn and wit, teaching some locals the tricks of our trade. Father leads his family and his deftly purchased village, complete with villagers, to great heights initially, but he learns some hard lessons. I hope I remember them when my time finally comes.
Most of the us, from time to time, dream of falling off the grid, but many of us—certainly me—fail to grasp just exactly what that means: No more ordering books with free international shipping! WiFi! 80s classic films! Afternoons in really nice café bars with a Bloody Mary, nothing to do, and friends from all walks of life. While this is nice in spurts, is it really what I want? The Mosquito Coast was a great reminder of just how great I have it, regardless of whatever frustrations that seem pertinent to escape forever. It moved me to consider differently where all the traveling will take me in the end.
As a writer, and especially a travel writer who once specialized in fiction, Theroux provides a nice reminder of the possibility of combining those old ambitions with my new life. I knew it was out there, but it was nice to see it living on the page. This one is definitely something different from the memoirs I’ve been delving into lately. It’s something—travel fiction that is—I hope to try my hand at when all is said and done, which is probably a better idea than founding my own village in the jungle.
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my travel writing training was to read travel books and take from them what I could. These are thoughts on some of those travel books.