Hoping to get away, a man suffering from writer's block washes up at the rundown Hotel Honolulu, where he becomes the manager after the hotel's boozy owner fires himself. Hawaii is supposed to be a laid-back escape, but the writer is intrigued by the eccentric hotel guests, who each have compelling stories of their own. As the human drama develops all around him, the writer finds himself being pulled back into the world he left behind.
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 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.
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.