Paul Theroux’s The Lower River (2012) is a terrific novel, made better by its uncharacteristic two-fold start. Most novels have a singular start, an event or linked-events that set the main story in motion, but Theroux stuns a reader of The Lower River early with two distinct starts, one a familiar tale of marital infidelity, and the other unfamiliar, a story of a snake that wants to eat a woman.
Start 1: Deena buys a new smartphone for her husband Ellis Hock, which she activates for him, which downloads a thousand of Hock’s flirtatious emails with various women, emails he thought he had deleted for good. Hock is 62 and was never happier as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. He thinks he wants to get back to Africa, now that Deena has found him out. They go to marriage counseling, where the counselor quotes “Killing Me Softly” lyrics. Hock and Deena divorce amicably.
Start 2: Hock’s friend Jerry is dating this woman Teya, who has a pet python she sleeps with. Jerry pesters Hock for python advice as it has been acting weird; Hock was a researcher of snakes in Africa. Lately the python has been flattening itself aside Teya. Hock realizes it is measuring Teya in order to eat her. Jerry and Hock visit Teya with a guinea pig for the snake, and the snake, with its smell of muscle and urine, serves as Hock’s ‘petites madeleine’ and brings his Africa memories back in full force, setting the novel on its way.
I might have stopped reading The Lower River if that first start had been the only start. But Theroux is not your average novelist, and makes his best books go in unexpected ways.