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Book Review

Lives, Lore and Love Intersect at Old Hotel

May 31, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HOTEL HONOLULU

By Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin

432 pages, $26

*

Paul Theroux and the narrator of "Hotel Honolulu" are a lot alike. Both are writers with hard-to-pronounce names. Each has written more than 30 books and achieved critical success. Each has a keen eye for human frailty. But there is a difference: Theroux, whose output seems inexhaustible, asks us to believe that the narrator, down on his luck, would quit writing for a decade and take a job managing "the last small, old hotel in Honolulu."

Another surprise is that Theroux would write a novel this big that seemingly lacks a center, except for the narrator's unobtrusive voice. The narrator's story commands less attention than the stories of any of two dozen other characters. The result is less like Theroux's previous novels--think of "The Mosquito Coast," with its half-crazed, charismatic protagonist--than like one of his short-story collections or even his travel books.

In a hotel, of course, the narrator can travel while staying in one place. The world comes to him--Middle American and Japanese tourists; the native Hawaiians who cook, make the beds and tend the grounds; cops, killers and suicides; and all varieties of lovers and prostitutes. There's also the childish, drunken, lovable owner, Buddy Hamstra, who hires the narrator on a whim; and Sweetie, the "coconut princess," reputed to be a love child of JFK, who marries the narrator in the second chapter.

So soon? we ask. Shouldn't the 49-year-old narrator, who has "lost houses, lost land, lost family, lost friends," struggle longer and more interestingly to find new love? He worries that he knows nothing about managing a hotel, but in fact he runs the place smoothly. His problems, Theroux is telling us, are not the story. The story in each episode is somebody else's, shocking or pathetic or funny, sharpened and simplified by repeated telling, as hotel lore would be.

Gradually, though, we notice that the episodes aren't as unrelated as we think. The narrator hears different versions, gets additional information. People, seemingly fixed forever in the shape that hotel lore has given them, ooze over the boundaries or shatter them altogether. It's Theroux's way, we realize, of combining the effects of the short story and the novel--the focused and the panoramic view.

Take Madam Ma. She first appears as a middle-age newspaper columnist who swaps "mentions" of resorts and restaurants for freebies. She scolds the narrator's and Sweetie's daughter, Rose, and seems unpleasant in a petty way. Her column is peppered with cute quotes from her teenage son, Chip. But Chip, we learn later, is over 40 and alcoholic; and after he kills his gay lover, we discover that Madam Ma has been a monster of sexual manipulation and greed all her life.

The narrator meets the late Leon Edel, distinguished biographer of Henry James, and confides that "not writing, I lived an unsorted life. The disorder had begun to pain me, keep me from thinking clearly, make the time pass quickly, and leave me no clear impressions. Not writing gave me a bad memory and made me uncomprehending. I knew I would not understand [Hawaii], or the way I felt lost in it, until I wrote about it."

Buddy, dying of the diseases of excess, and watching his last wife, Pinky--a skinny 23-year-old Filipina "picture bride"--gnaw at his fortune like one of the islands' ubiquitous rats, knows this too. He can't write but sees himself as vital and colorful, worth writing about. In the narrator's view, he is "always unconsciously auditioning for a part in a novel."

Well, guess what? Buddy has a part in "Hotel Honolulu," whose supposedly missing center turns out to have been the narrator's consciousness all along--sorting, organizing, saving all these other characters as well as himself from the oblivion of "bad memory."

That's no small achievement for a novel that also offers plenty of good, racy entertainment and a survey of human motives that doesn't omit warmth and compassion--witness the affectionate portrait of Edel. In paradise, it seems, even the famously acerbic Theroux has mellowed a little.

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