Books May 2001

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Hotel Honolulu

Although Paul Theroux's latest book bills itself as a novel, it proves to be another example of the self-reflexive whimsy that has come to dominate the author's work. The Theroux titles My Secret History and My Other Life could have served just as well for this effort, in which a fifty-something novelist (whose career bears a distinct resemblance to a certain Paul Theroux's) moves to Hawaii, where he abandons writing for a job as a hotel manager. In a narrative as laid-back as a riff of slack-key guitar, he marries the daughter of the in-house hooker and spends his days dealing with bumptious guests, enigmatic employees, and his larger-than-life boss, Buddy Hamstra.

The writing is at its best when Theroux is sketching a side of Hawaii that tourists might see but never understand—the service-industry workers and expatriate landowners who try to find some sort of permanence in this most temporary of states. The book brims with eccentric characters and their wild, usually morbid tales. Philandering honeymooners, priapic Japanese businessmen, a shoe fetishist, and a 650-pound pop star make raucous cameo appearances, but it is the characters that hang around, such as a mail-order Filipina bride, a venomous journalist known as Madam Ma, and the bibulous Buddy, who linger in the reader's imagination.

Theroux is less successful with his narrator, whose voice is merely a half-hearted attempt at exploring the sort of literary counterlife that so interests the author. The reluctant manager remains too anemic a presence to unite the novel in a coherent fictional scheme; the demons that keep him from writing are never satisfactorily conjured. His wife, Sweetie, who is supposedly the illegitimate daughter of JFK, and their wild child, Rose, are querulous and underdeveloped in comparison with the other residents. Theroux would have been wiser to check himself out of Hotel Honolulu and let it become the short-story collection it clearly longs to be.

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