The movie version of this novel came out when I was a kid and for whatever reason we watched it as a family when it was on tape. I am not saying my dad is the same as the dad in this book (played by Harrison Ford in the movie, and by Justin Theroux, nephew of the author Paul Theroux, in an upcoming series), but they have some similarities. The dad here is officious, and maybe brilliant, clearly intelligent, seemingly a dry-drunk, paranoid, racist, some kind prepper and man-of-adventure, and unfortunately for all of them, he happens to have four children. The oldest child is our narrator for this novel (and I honestly don’t recall enough of the movie to weigh in) but this novel needs a first person narrator. The plot itself is already too similar to Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King to allow for the dad to be our narrator, and too similar to other novels and films to stand outside. We need to know what someone both in sheer terror and complete thrall of this dad feels about the story for us to really proceed.
We have a dad, a very American dad, and he and his family are living out in the middle of nowhere along the Connecticut River valley near the border of Massachusetts border. He has strong beliefs in self-determination (although he supports the president), being self-made, not being a clear part of society, and not being observed. He’s monomaniacal toward a specific vision of leaving it all behind to start anew somewhere. He sees humanity’s biggest curse as the 20th century, which has stripped down existence into artificial chunks. He abhors electricity and computers, even if he feels he understands them. And what does he have to offer up? A kerosene-fueled ice making machine.
So he and the family trek off to Honduras, by boat, in order to live amongst a small town up river and build a giant ice-making plant to deliver ice to other villages. The scattered vision of this man would be bad enough for the villagers there, but he also has his family in tow, and he hates the uncomfortable comparison he finds (holding up a mirror, so to speak) of an American missionary family whose paths he seems to cross numerous times. You might guess that his plan has unforeseen (by him) complications.
This is one of the most American characters I’ve read in a long time, and I still can’t believe my family wanted to see this movie, and how uncomfortable that might have been had I understood it at the time.