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Compelling spring reading; A chilling story of survival The Mosquito Coast, by Paul Theroux. New York: Avon Books. 416 pp. $3.95.

Somewhere within the American consciousness lies the myth of escape - the promise that if things get worse one can always light out for new territory. One version or another of this primal urge gives substance to the work of nearly all major American novelists.

In this book the person seeking escape is Father, who first appears as a kind of gentle lunatic bent on moving his family from a Massachusetts farm to the interior of Honduras. Driven by a bitter reaction to everything around him, he forces his family into a primitive subservience that almost costs them their lives.

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In this chilling yarn of survival, Charlie, the 14-year-old narrator of the story, comes back to tell the tale with the shrewd detachment of a seasoned observer. While he allows the boy to grow in the understanding of certain moral implications, author Theroux never loses his tight grasp on the lines of suspense.

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