a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
Paul Theroux is probably my favorite American author writing today, but I hope never to meet him because I suspect he isn’t a very nice guy.
Most readers remember Theroux from his bestseller, The Mosquito Coast, made into a movie in the 1980s with Harrison Ford, a story of an idealistic American family that moves to Central America to live the simple life and finds more than they bargained for. If you’re a traveler, you will also know his non-fiction accounts of train journeys in distant lands: Riding the Iron Rooster, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express. Later, he wrote a series of pseudo-autobiographies – My Secret History, My Other Life – in which Paul Theroux is a character in imaginary adventures.
There are many other books as well, a prolific outpouring of work that includes a disparaging critique of his old friend and mentor, V.S. Naipul. In each book, Theroux tends to dissect the people he meets without love, and without mercy – but with brilliance, you must grant him that. The man is unkind, but he is unquestionably an extremely good writer, and never even slightly boring.
Theroux, who in real life divides his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii, has set his most recent novel, Hotel Honolulu, in Oahu, taking a hard and often hilarious look at the seedy underbelly of Waikiki. The narrator is an unnamed writer who gets a job as manager of a second-rate hotel a few blocks from the water and seems an awful lot like Paul Theroux – except for the fact that he hasn’t published for a while and he’s down on his luck.
One of Theroux’s trademarks is that he always starts a book with a terrific first line. “Nothing to me is so erotic as a hotel room,” he begins Hotel Honolulu, “and therefore so penetrated with life and death.” And this in fact, very cleverly, is what the book is all about, the sum total of the story – not so much a novel as a series of episodes and characters, anecdotes about the people who lives and deaths revolve around the hotel.
There’s Roland Miranda, for example, the carpenter who lives in room 509. Loud noises suggestive of love-making come from the room at strange hours, prompting many complaints and some wistful envy from the narrator. But as it happens, love has nothing to do with it – Mr. Miranda has been building himself a coffin.
And Madam Ma, who writes a chatty gossip column for the Honolulu Advertiser, covering restaurant openings and celebrity sightings and parties at which she always seems to be the guest of honor. A queenly woman, very uppity . . . until her middle-aged homosexual son, Chip, kills his lover in a bizarre menage-a-trois of which she has been a part, and her entire world falls apart.
And Nervermann the Searcher, a millionaire who spends his life tracking down people from his past, curious to see what has become of them. And Puamana the prostitute, and Royce Lionberg – “the happiest man in Hawaii” – and more, including Buddy, the boozy, free-wheeling owner, a fascinating character too.
The narrator sees it all with an unerring eye, the down-at-the-heels world of Waikiki. Paul Theroux somehow gets it all exactly right, from late-night conversations at the Paradise Lost Bar to the rhythms of semi-pidgin native Hawaiian slang. There is an overall theme to Hotel Honolulu, as the narrator struggles to find his way as a writer again. But in fact, the book reads like a collections of short stories – intriguing anecdotes that are rich and varied, funny and eccentric, a Polynesian mix of dreamers and frauds.
is a fun book, the oddest (and truest) portrait of Waikiki you will
find in print. So if you can’t get to Hawaii this winter, indulge
yourself with a reservation at the Hotel
Honolulu. It will be a vacation you won’t forget.
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