Sun, Apr 15, 2001 - Page 19 News List

Theroux strikes again

Autobiographical fiction writer Paul Theroux unleashes his characteristically harsh treatment of his subjects in `Hotel Honolulu'

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Paul Theroux may be a wicked pleasure, but an undoubted pleasure he is nonetheless. Just about everyone enjoys him. Even those who hurl his books out the window and swear they'll never have another in the house almost always relent. However capriciously cruel he is, however abrasive, you can't help but recognize his insight and his truth in saying the way things are. In addition, you simply have to laugh.

His aggression has led him to practice in recent years his own finely honed sub-genre -- the fictional autobiography. "So savage are his attacks," you can hear his publisher saying, "they have to be published as novels. It's the only way to avoid endless libel suits! If Theroux's stories are offered as fiction, then we're in the money; if they're put out as memoirs, we're on the road to the liquidators." First there was My Secret History, then a few years later came My Other Life. Both were issued under the formal description of "fiction," yet almost every detail in them conformed to his actual life story. No one was fooled, but the lawyers will have appreciated the value, in strictly financial terms, of the ruse.

In this new book titled Hotel Honolulu, Theroux is at it again. He moved to Hawaii many years ago now. Thirteen years in London had proved emotionally as much as he could take (one sentence on the city in this book is enough to put you off it for ever), and shortly after, Boston followed down the same plughole. Hawaii beckoned as somewhere to restore his health, both spiritual and physical, as the ending of his genuine novel Millroy the Magician testifies. A diet of fresh-air attitudes and whole-grain vegetarian food suddenly seemed unexpectedly appealing.

Hotel Honolulu opens with a jaded writer anxious to take a break from the literary life. Arriving in Hawaii, he accepts a job as the manager of a medium-sized, medium-priced hotel. The book chronicles the bizarre happenings in this establishment where everyone is either fanatical, sex-crazed, or related in direct blood line to John F. Kennedy.

Did Theroux really work as a hotel manager? On the surface it seems unlikely. But a revulsion from the life of the pen has many antecedents, and besides, it's difficult to see how else he could have assembled such richly comic material. It would have taken a whole team of enormously inventive script-writers to imagine such an extraordinary array of characters.

There's the hotel's owner, for instance, Buddy Hamstra, bulging out of his T-shirt and shorts, grinning, waving a cellphone, and totally unaware of his grotesque absurdity. He impregnated his step-mother at age 17, won the hotel in a card game, and married a Filipina child prostitute, Pinky, who he considers an angel.

Pinky's life story prior to her marriage forms, incidentally, one of the more gruesome episodes of the book. But throughout the book, Theroux displays a barely-suppressed outrage that his more moralizing critics would do well to dwell on.

Then there's Madam Ma, a Chinese American who pens a weekly column for the local newspaper that is barely distinguishable from verbatim public relations for the local hotels and eateries.

And then there's the murder of a gay, but married, man by his lover. This is given twist after twist in a manner worthy of a Feydeau farce. Finally it's revealed that the murdered man was his gay boyfriend's mother's secret heterosexual paramour.

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