Monday, July 7, 2008

Books: Hotel Honolulu, by Paul Theroux

This is the first of what I think will be many dips into Theroux's oeuvre, which consists of fiction, non-fiction, and what I have before here referred to as semi-fictional memoir. Though Hotel Honolulu, which I would deem semi-fictional memoir (or perhaps ultra-facile fictional semi-fictional memoir), is lengthy, meandering, and not very compelling, it is intimate, gossipy, tender, and riddled with writerly self-doubt and intellectual affectation. Perhaps best known as a travel writer, Theroux seamlessly tells the story of, yes, a late middle-aged male novelist who moves to Hawaii and gets a simple job managing a small hotel. The narrator is tired, lost, used up; the hotel is mid-range, tired, on the wrong side of the coastal highway, with 80 rooms, only one pool, and a Chaucerian assortment of permanent residents, staff, and local hangers-on. Meanwhile, Theroux actually does live in Hawaii (although I do not know whether he actually does manage a hotel), and I don't doubt the veracity of his more literary experiences (like watching his paperback copy of Anna Karenina slowly fatten with the island's humidity, like being introduced to people with the impressive phrase, "He wrote a book!" and like struggling over whether or not to tell the stories of the people he meets). What emerges, then, is one of those typical fact/fiction hybrids that have been driving readers so crazy these past few years, although this one seems to have slipped by unnoticed.

What pushes the reader through these 400-some-odd pages of loosely connected bits are the gossipy bits: the Rabelaisian hotel owner, Buddy, with his big belly, his new mail0-order bride from the Philippines, his practical jokes, cocktail in one hand and ashes of his old wife in a locket in the other; Pinky, the mail-order bride, her history of sexual abuse first at the hands of her uncle, then as an exotic dancer and a truck-stop whore; Madam Ma, the aged beauty and gossip columnist, who carries on an affair with her gay son's lover; Tran, the Vietnamese barkeep, who lost all his family after their overcrowded, tiny boat headed for Guam was lost; Peewee the Chinese cook; Lionberg, the eccentric, wealthy gentleman who thinks he's happy until one weekend with a spirited girl upends his universe, inspiring him to suicide; Puamana, the Hawaiian coconut princess with her selfish cat Popoki, sent to "entertain" President Kennedy during his visit back in the 1960s, who gave birth to Sweetie, the half-Irish coconut princess the narrator marries though she's half his age, her interest in literature extending only to Stephen King books, which she listens to on her walkman while rollerblading, who gives birth to the narrator's little daughter Rose, a precocious, sensitive, language-obsessed extension of the narrator's (author's?) consciousness.

Having been strung along by all these bits, though, the real prize is not the gossip, though Theroux is a fine storyteller. The narrator's frustration, desire, distrust, neediness, self-doubt are those of any writer, any traveler, any interloper, which, ultimately, all writers and travelers are. There is a struggle to let go of one's past, but not lose one's identity, and a similar struggle to hear friends "talk story" (as its called by the Hawaiian locals) without becoming a thief, mining people only for their sorrows, and then sprinkling them into your novels, skewing them, changing them, owning them. While I don't think that Theroux comes close to handling these dilemmas with grace—in fact, I think he rather botches it—his narrator is conscious of the problem, of his social ineptitude, his bungling, and his work at the hotel, which is really only to sit back and let the employees keep the wheels spinning, is the ultimate metaphor for this parasitic relationship. And we read because we are titillated by these stolen stories, these rapes, molestations, murders, abuses; we are no better than he is. Are we touched by the fragility of human lives, or merely mesmerized by the exchange of sex for money? This is an ugly fence to straddle, and Theroux sits us very comfortably up on it.

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