Cal has always lived in the shadow of his brother Frank, a complicated narcissist who was doted upon by their mother and beloved by the girls in their hometown--including Cal's own girlfriends. In an attempt to escape Frank's insidious presence, Cal pursues a different kind of freedom in the world's wild spaces, prospecting for gold and precious minerals everywhere from the heat of the desert at the Mexican border to the Alaskan chill to the suffocating African mines, where he will meet the love of his life, Vida. Soon he is dripping in wealth, his pockets full of gold nuggets and emeralds, but the money means far less to him than his independence.
Literary characters don’t need to be likable, of course, but they do need to be fascinating. That said, I didn’t fully loathe Cal’s white savior act until he returns to an emerald mine he co-owns in Zambia and ogles a village woman while she’s balancing laundry on her head ... Theroux is at his masterly best when slowly raising the tensions and resentments and pushing Cal toward the homicidal rage we know to expect. While the eviscerating denouement of The Bad Angel Brothers might make us question some of the red-herring narrative choices that come before it, Cal’s ultimate decisions feel both shocking and inevitable.
Theroux cranks the nastiness to 11 ... Theroux plays skillfully on reader sympathies until the bitter end, showing how a man’s beliefs can make him turn to violence. The result is searing and memorable.
All of this offers a promising setup that turns out to be stronger than its execution, as the novel takes too long to reach its inevitable climax. Theroux is an acclaimed travel writer, and he brings those skills to bear in intermittent scenes vividly describing Cal’s gem-hunting work in places like Colombia and Zambia and some interesting aspects of the rare gem business. Inside this slow-paced novel there is a much more energetic one trying to emerge ... A psychological thriller whose payoff doesn’t deliver on a protracted buildup.