BY ANDREW MOODY
“Know why I hate scavengers?”
Mother said “Allie, please,” and turned away.
“Because they remind me of human beings.”
Paul Theroux’s 1981 award winning novel about a teenage boy narrating the story of his increasingly unhinged father dragging the family to an uninhabited island in Honduras to build a new civilisation (he believes nuclear holocaust is due for the United States) was an instant classic. It retains its power through a gripping narrative, subtle prose style and gentle, effective geographical detail. (Theroux spent many years as a travel writer.)
Australian filmmaker Peter Weir adapted the novel in 1986 with Harrison Ford as the quixotic Allie Ford, a brilliant manic depressive willing to go to any length to bring his gas power ice machine (“His Big Boy”) to the savages who had never seen ice before.
Helen Mirren underplays the role of his wife beautifully, but the real revelation is the teenage son Charlie, played by iconic actor River Phoenix. With an innate sense of camera timing and placement, if his suspicious death in Johnny Depp’s Viper Room had not occurred, Phoenix would have dominated the nineties.
“No one loves the country more than I do,” father said, “and that’s why I’m going. Because I can’t bear to watch.”
In the movie (which Ford, despite the complexity of the role, admits he did “no research for”) Charlie is the focus of the camera and the primary centre of interest for the viewer – when alive he was the most beautiful actor of his generation.
“I once ate a banana from Honduras. Figured I might migrate?”
The captain ignored Father and said to Mother, “In most ways Honduras is about fifty years behind the times.”
“That suits me,” Father said, “but we’re going to Mosquita.”
“That’s the stone age,” the captain said, “the Americas before the pilgrims arrived. There’s no roads, it’s all virgin jungle.”
The further the Foxes head out into the Mosquito Coast, the farther from Robinson Crusoe the novel becomes and the closer to Lord of the Flies.
Allie Fox’s madness turns psychotic as he travels inland with banana peels wrapped with ice to show the frozen booty to the savages. It melts completely before he can show them. Chiefly a man of brilliance, who Charlie both admires and fears, he is incapable of seeing the views of others. I imagine the author probably had Jack Nicholson in mind for the role, but playing against type, Harrison Ford gives the performance of a lifetime and should really have won the 1986 Oscar.
“What had happened to the United states, had it been destroyed?”
The question made her sad, but she said “I hope so,”
“No,” I said
“Yes” she pulled the hair out of my eyes and hugged me.
“Because if it we’re the luckiest people in the world”
“And,” I said “what if it isn’t?”
“Then we’ve made a terrible mistake.”
As things fall apart, and Allie is shot to death, the novel ends on a succinct note. Theroux plotted other chapters after the death of Allie Fox but felt the book ended, or died, without his drive and insanity.
Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @Voguishfiction