Theroux's 'Hotel Honolulu': Happiness is very hard won

On Books

May 20, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

In his new novel, "Hotel Honolulu," (Houghton Mifflin, 432 pages, $26) Paul Theroux writes, "It takes only a modest talent to write about misery -- and misery is a more congenial subject than happiness. Most of us have known some suffering and can understand and respond by filling in the gaps. But great happiness is almost incomprehensible, and conveying it in print requires genius. ... Gloom finds kindred spirits, but write about pleasure and readers feel mocked and excluded."

In "Honolulu," Theroux is certain to find many kindred spirits. This extraordinary narrative of a nameless, writer's-block-blighted, broke and beached writer's almost full decade as manager of a seedy 80-room tourist hostel in Waikiki is abrim with misery. But it also seldom ceases to pulse with happiness -- though "great happiness," proves elusive. Joy's nature is evanescence. This book respects its delicacy.

Theroux has written no fewer than 27 books, including 24 of fiction. He first startled readers in the late 1960s with his travel writing -- "The Old Patagonian Express," "The Great Railway Bazaar" -- and then with novels, including "My Other Life" and "The Mosquito Coast." He has lived almost everywhere, but now makes his home on Cape Cod and in Hawaii.

His powers of evoking place and time are remarkable: "It was one of those brilliant, orchidaceous days on the North Shore of Oahu, under the towering palms. A silky breeze lisped through the needles of the ironwoods edging Sunset Beach. The cliffs behind us were as dark and leafy as spinach." At another point, he describes a sunset as "this hundred-egg omelet of nature being beaten into the sea."

But brushwork alone can be merely ornamental and does not produce a book of genuine substance. Necessary for that, and which Theroux does achieve, are depth, vision and richness of character. "Hotel Honolulu" finally is a novel of profound compassion, bittersweet ironies and a powerfully convincing dramatic architecture.

This book is a great celebration of the story -- the wonderful truth that a good story is alive, has a soul. A real story is not only coherent and believable, but also is organic, mysterious, has meaning that is beyond its words. Almost every one of its 80 four-to-six page chapters has that. Some are no bigger than a glimpse at a single Scrabble game. Others envelop an entire human life. The book is a box of little, lapidary miracles

The dramatic vehicle is the narrator's search for understanding -- of the culture of the islands, of the nature of human affection, of the dynamic of personal purpose, of self.

The narrator is a writer of significant books who has gone fallow. He has withdrawn from marriage and family, has exiled himself to an unfamiliar land and is out of money. He has stopped writing and at 49 is trying to start life all over. He has taken, without experience, a hotel manager's job offered by Buddy Hamstra, the owner, an ebulliently mad millionaire given to marginally sadistic practical jokes and self-destructive appetites for booze, food and other excesses of the body.

"My career as a writer had not trained me for anything practical," the narrator observes. "I thought of describing this in a despairing book of exile I would title Who I Was. Writing had made me unemployable, had isolated me and given me the absurd delusion that I could perform tasks that were beyond me." From the beginning, his voice is confiding, with engaging sophistication and great but self-recognized vulnerability.

The brief chapters begin as scattered anecdotes of the hotel -- its staff and an endless menagerie of guests wandering through for a week or staying for months on end. Some are poignant. In one, a shoe salesman comes to Hawaii for a few days, scrapes his leg on a bit of coral while doing a kindness for a child, and within a few days loses his leg from the knee down. He returns to the mainland. His life completely falls apart. Theroux does that in four and one-third pages, masterfully.

To some readers, the clipped anecdotal structure may seem episodic, staccato, scattered. To this reader, however, the little stories began to weave characters and circumstances together into a humane tapestry -- vignettes about people which, flowing together, become a seamless tale. His Hawaii is a place of strangers, of passers-through, of prostitutes, dead-enders, hangers-on, idle rich. Some are simply survivors. More are lonely, needful people, unable to deal with their lives.

The cultural anthropology of Hawaii that Theroux presents is a convincing, self-confident mixture of interests and peoples. The gradual evolution of the main character's awareness of self and life is powerfully presented.

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