Along with the idea that Hawaii exists to please outsiders is the recurring theme that it’s still never good enough. “Hankering after something incontestably Hawaiian, you end up on a charter bus bound for the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park 15 miles east on the Kalanianaole Highway. Never mind that what is most purely Hawaiian about the luau is its proficiency at extracting tourists’ dollars.”
Now that is something.
You might argue that whatever it was that was most “purely Hawaiian” is long gone, perhaps lost when Hawaii was first invaded by colonialists, or when the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown by outsiders in 1893, or when the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, or when steamships gave way to commercial airplanes and ever-more hotels blossomed along the Waikiki coast. An allusion to anything being “purely Hawaiian,” if such a designation could be made, seems tone deaf in a place where some people’s housing is still determined by blood-quantum laws.
Tower goes on to say he always assumed Hawaii was a “meretricious luxury product,” worthless unless you quantified your own happiness in dollars. But on this trip, he says, he is ready to go to a place that is “notoriously nice.”
“Give me a slack-keyed, macadamia-dusted holiday,” he writes, “where things are pretty and people are smiling, if only because it’s in their job description.”
The people we meet in the story, however, often come across as caricatures. There is the “tanned, professional butt” of a young woman on the beach. And later, “this coconut man (the second in our mounting tally),” who tells an old story about coconut water being used in place of blood transfusions during World War II. “I have heard this fable before and know it to be hogwash, but I say, ‘Oh, wow,’ and await my $10 change that does not appear to be forthcoming,” Tower writes. Eventually, he gets his change and departs, “full of gratitude for this fellow, not only because his coconuts are very fine, but for nipping a budding and inconvenient fancy that I might like to live here on the Big Island. His brand of coconut palaver is, I suspect, common in these parts.”
Is it at all possible that this particular brand of “coconut palaver” is just a guy who sells coconuts, and that he just sold you two coconuts, and that’s basically it? No matter. To the visitor, this encounter is strange and undesirable: “Encountering it on any sort of regular basis, straight-world mainlander that I am, would drive me out of my mind.”
The writer concedes to being awe-inspired by the sight of Kilauea, the long-erupting volcano on the Big Island, but then describes the lava flow as “newborn wads of America,” which is not exactly the tenor of respect that one might expect for a sacred site. (It’s also weirdly nationalistic language for describing a geologic phenomena.)
As it happens, that section of the story contained a translation snafu, an understandable mistake—we all make them—and had a correction appended: “Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article gave an incorrect English translation of the Hawaiian word ‘Kilauea.’ It is ‘much spreading,’ not ‘mush spreading.’”
Leaving readers with an image of spreading mush, however, seems about right.