Hotel Honolulu

by Paul Theroux

Paper Book, 2001




London Hamilton 2001


Welcome to the Hotel Honolulu, a down-at-the-heels tourist place that’s two blocks from the beach on a back street in Waikiki, where middle America stays and dreams. Like the Canterbury pilgrims, every guest in this eighty-room hotel has come in search of something -- sun, love, happiness, unnamable longing -- and everyone has a story. Honeymooners, vacationers, wanderers, mythomaniacs, soldiers, and families all land at the Hotel Honolulu. But the hotel is as suited to being a crime scene as a love nest. Fortunately, our keen-eyed narrator, a writer down on his luck, is there to relate all the comings and goings. He’s lost money, friends, house, and family, and he has no experience running a hotel. But all that doesn’t stop Buddy, the bloated, boozy hotel owner -- the last of a dying breed -- from signing him on as manager. It isn’t long before the hotel expands to encompass the narrator’s whole world. His original plan of escape from a life of the mind becomes something altogether different: a way to return to the world he left, the world of imagined life. No one but Paul Theroux could write this romp of a book, with its acutely drawn characters and canny insights into a place that is often viewed as a simple island paradise. In this unforgettable novel, Theroux shows us a funny, languid, louche floating world, island style. This is the essence of Hawaii as it has never been depicted, and it is also the heart of America.… (more)

Media reviews

If you can get past the false modesty of the narrator, whose allusions to his discarded fame only make him sound smug, there’s wonder on every floor of the Hotel Honolulu.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mayumishimosepoe
"Reason being, you're a mainland howlie": Why Hotel Honolulu was a partial, though epic, fail, in my humble opinion.

On my trip east and back again for the recent AWP 2011 conference, I tucked myself into Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu (2001). Having never read Theroux but recognizing the name as one
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I'm "supposed" to have read, this novel--which I obtained, free, on a stoop in Fort Greene while I still lived there--seemed as a good a place as any to make entry into his considerable body of work.

Perhaps an ill-fated choice.

I wish to GOD that amongst the dozen reviews listed on the book's back cover and inside first pages, a single one had come from a local. Might have saved me time and aggravation.

Hotel Honolulu itself is a fast read, even at 424 pages, plenty of sex and sexiness and booze and intriguing little anecdotes--one reviewer likened it aptly to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales--to keep the pages turning. The white characters--mainlanders who had come to make Honolulu home--rang true, if as assholes, and the seedy side of Waikiki--well, that ain't fiction, folks.

What I can't figure out is how Theroux so holds me in his hand such that I kept flipping pages despite the fact that every third page managed to offend me.

Trolling the Internet for a local person's thoughts on the subject, I came up with nada, but there was plenty of talk about the book. those who weren't wowed by the book mostly focused on the sexual depravity and "ugly intimacies" as one reader put it.

That actually didn't bother me. The world is ugly. Sex is awkward. People aren't nice. Welcome to the world.

But Theroux's use of pidgin and Hawaiian in the book downright made me see red. The choices he made in spelling the language, the way he unnecessarily at times threw around terms and then pedantically defined them, the imprecise ways he employed pidgin, especially. Ohhhhh! $%*@(#*@))#@(! It was as if he'd not read any local authors' books in consideration of how to render the language on the page; instead, he just ... winged it.

Also, and it must be said, the depiction of the locals--as a generalized category, as if all people born there were born to the same slow song, the same VOG clouding their brains--well, as a former local myself, I really didn't appreciate it. Even filtered through an ostensible narrator, I couldn't help but wonder if those views were held by Theroux himself, and I will tell you why--it's because his narrator seems meant to be a stand-in for himself, a well-known writer experiencing an entire chunk of years of writer's block. Hawai'i is rendered in Theroux's narrator's eyes as a place where burnouts and dropouts and the lazy, broken, depraved, drunk, and damaged come to rest--a final stop for losers.

Portraying Hawai'i as paradise lost instead of paradise itself is fine. Good, even--better to try for realism than to naively portray the impossible. Not exactly new--see the entire basis of Lois-Ann Yamanaka's career--but fine. But even at Yamanaka's roughest, she rendered not only the backward and broken-down qualities of the place and people, but also their raw humanity. In Theroux's hands, I feel the people and place have been rendered exotic, but worse, exotic in a seedy way--a sideways glance at the people, as if they are up to something on the cover of his book that makes you want to cover it in brown paper before you take it on the subway, as if saying "I will pray for them" while staring agog at a particularly bloody and gutsy car accident or not changing the channel very fast when you see a late-night TV investigation about a Russian club where women have sex with bears. That strange, unadmittable pull of simultaneous repulsion and attraction.

Maybe I'm just having the gut instinct, the defensiveness kick in: Not every local person is like that! Portray a full range of people! If people are like this in Hawaii, so are they the world over! Where do you come from? I will show you the slow-minded and assholy people there, too! Be fair! et cetera. I am who I am and I read what I read, so says the literary Popeye. I can't help what offends me, even if perhaps it isn't certain that the author meant to offend. That said, I also think that when writing about others, especially as a white male, I wish he'd taken greater care not to exoticize or offend.

On the other hand, Theroux's musings via his narrator (thinly veiled, really himself) about writing and writer's and block and so forth read like a craft book. Those parts were probably my favorites, along with the structure and pacing--all of which I count as successes on his part.

A few months back, I made some firm resolution to not review books for which I couldn't give a pleasant review. To refocus my energies and attention on those who deserved attention rather than talk shit about books or authors that I felt had failed.

That didn't last very long, did it?

So, whatever. Take these words or leave them. I definitely don't pretend to speak for anyone but myself. This is not "the local view" or anything like that. It is one person's thoughts, one person's review, based on a history of where I was born, where I grew, what I read, who I met, how I lived, that I write, and the unfortunate confluence of events that led me--the me that is OBSESSED with how pidgin and really any dialect/vernacular gets treated in literature--to find myself reading Hotel Honolulu.
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LibraryThing member hayduke
Theroux,one of my favorite writers, is almost better known for his travel writing than his novels (Mosquito Coast, Saint Jack, My Secret History to name a few), but I'm a fan of all of his work. There is something about his main characters (usually thinly veiled versions of the author himself) that
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I identify with. I truly enjoyed Hotel Honolulu. My only complaint is that it reads like a series of short stories, so I found myself reading it in short installments, rather than getting caught up in the arc of the novel. Still very entertaining and poignant, filled with richly detailed characters.
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LibraryThing member ggarfield
So much fun, so many characters, very well written. The premise of the hotel as a gathering place (and in this case watering hole) for a cast of very colorful and transient characters is facinating.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
This was not really a novel. It was an excuse to write a whole bunch of disconnected stories about people whose lives barely touched each others'. None of the characters had anything about them that induced sympathy or make you like them. There was so much greed and vice and sheer nastiness about
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everyone that I didn’t want to hear much more.

The only interesting thing was the writer’s relationship with his wife. He married her because she was strong and earthy and sexy. He kept mentioning how she wasn’t very smart and when she would come out with some nugget of wisdom, he was always surprised that her tiny brain could have produced it. It seemed a weird basis for a marriage. And the daughter they had was just unreal. So literal and pedantic at age 5 that you wondered if she had been born without an imagination the way some kids are born without limbs. A birth defect.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Anecdotal, with some extremely fun and/or bizarre characterizations of people who stay and/or work at the hotel. The narrator is the manager, a writer with writer's block, and he recounts his stories in a very colorfully subjective way. One gets a very true feeling for Hawaii.
LibraryThing member Faradaydon
No more than a clutch of linked, thinly developed short sketches. Disappointing.
LibraryThing member Dr_Cicle
I love this book! There is some sexual stuff but other than that, I love it! The writing style, the exotic characters, the plot twists. This is the perfect book!!!!
LibraryThing member burritapal
Theroux is a favorite author: O-Zone. This book reads like a collection of short stories, centered around guests, employees, the owner and visitors to a B-class Honolulu hotel. The stories are dark, funny, fascinating at times, and really have something for everyone. My personal fave was "Brudda
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Iz," about, who else? Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, who was a "calabash cousin" of the hotel janitor. Really delightful except I get sick of authors who perpetuate the stories of old farts who marry young women and have kids who everyone thinks is their grandchild, as if that were a normal thing to do.
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