Theroux strikes again

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

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, Apr 15, 2001 - Page 19

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.

Strangest of all, though, is the story of the author's own marriage to a young Hawaiian girl. She is presented as being the offspring of a one-night stand in a luxury hotel between her mother and a "distinguished visitor" back in the 1960s. When that visitor is revealed as having almost certainly been President Kennedy, Theroux (or anyway the book's narrator) slides into pole position as the father of Kennedy's unacknowledged grand-daughter.

When an actual literary figure turns up at Waikiki in the form of Leon Edel, a real-life biographer of the novelist Henry James, he seems positively tame by comparison. He and Theroux share a few cultured lunches together, concluding that they are "extraterrestrials" in the balmy tropical paradise. "We mused without regret, knowing that we really belonged back there [in the US east coast literary world] but had succeeded in slipping away."

Theroux is a supreme entertainer. He has mastered the most difficult of all arts for a writer -- that of being simultaneously intelligent and popular. He makes no compromises, and yet all his books are sure-fire best-sellers.

This is a book of grotesques, and almost every chapter is a story unto itself. It's as if Theroux had himself been writing satirical profiles for the local Honolulu newspaper, and this book is their collected edition. Each chapter ends with either a witticism or a final twist in the tail.

Hotel Honolulu is a comic masterpiece. Huge numbers of its episodes are real gems, and many of the characters deserve a permanent place in the world gallery of larger-than-life fictional giants, despite their being, in all probability, based on real people.

Theroux should be appreciated for what he is, a supreme literary master of our age, far more sophisticated than professional humorists such as Art Buchwald, and the equal of classic authors like Mark Twain. His books may feel raw and abrasive, but it's precisely because he's no conformist that he's so valuable. We may sometimes cringe at his outspokenness, but whatever else he is, he's always true to himself.

The book ends with Theroux becoming transformed into a sort of Thoreau, keeping bees in a remote Hawaiian bungalow with his young wife and daughter and, as he says "rock happy."

This is one of the most enjoyable books I have encountered for a very long time. However much he may have planned to escape the life of writing, Theroux is here again, and in top form. All there really is left to say is "Welcome back, and thank you."

Publication Notes:

Hotel Honolulu

By Paul Theroux

492 pages

Hamish Hamilton