Reviewed by Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971-73)
I’ve read and reviewed the last six books from the iconic travel writer, Paul Theroux, and was fortunate enough to snag a copy of the uncorrected proof of his next book, which will be available in mid-April. Initially, I was unenthusiastic about reading about the life of an aging surfer in Hawaii, but after reading On the Plain of Snakes about Mexico, I felt sure he’d manage to turn Hawaii into one of his ebullient tomes—and I was not disappointed. After all, the author has lived there for over 30 years, during which time he’s been gathering stories and materials about this unique 50th State.
Although he’s traveled the world, he lived the longest in Hawaii, whose complexity has fascinated him all that time. In an article in Smithsonian Magazine entitled, “Paul Theroux’s Quest to Define Hawaii,” the author revealed, “My love of traveling to islands amounts to a pathological condition known as nesomania, an obsession with islands. Each island is a small self-contained world than can help us understand larger ones.” He has written several fiction books like Hotel Honolulu (Houghton Mifflin 2001), but said, “I have struggled as though against monster surf to write non-fiction about the islands.” Although he’s connected with people from different social classes and places in the world, he asked, “So why are the islands so difficult and why is a place like Hawaii, one of the 50 U.S. States so uncooperative, so complex in its division?”
Under the Wave at Waimea begins with a quote from legendary Hawaiian surfer, Duke Kahanmoku, “Out of the water I’m nothing.” The protagonist, Joe Sharkey, “The Shark,” meets the Duke and seems to emulate his perspective on the meaning of life. Initially, “The island has no bad days — he surfed like an otter on acid.” Sharkey’s philosophy of life is summed up as, “I don’t want more than I have; therefore, I have everything. It’s the economy of enough.”
Sharkey is revered by many, but ignored by some of the younger surfers, generating this poignant passage,
He thought with wonderment, I’m old. When did it happen? It wasn’t sudden — no illness, no failure; it had stolen upon him. It could have been while I was surfing, going for smaller waves, becoming breathless and needing to rest as I paddled out. Or maybe on the days I stayed home, making myself busy, unaware of time passing, and then it was sunset and too dark to go anywhere except to bed. I hadn’t really noticed except for the ache in my knees some days. And growing old is also becoming a stranger, with a different and unrecognizable face, withering to insignificance, ceasing to matter. Nothing more will happen to me. So soon, so soon — and how sad to know that I will only get older.
His life changes forever when, driving through a tropical thunderstorm with his British companion, Olive, he runs into and kills what he thought was a homeless man on a pushbike. From this point on, the author takes us on a journey through what had been an unexamined life. From a young, mediocre student, Sharkey constantly ditches school in order to hit the beach and surf. His father is in the Special Forces in Vietnam and is more of a commander than a father. After his death in a helicopter crash, his mother, although very wealthy, has a serious drinking problem. Sharkey never really fits into his school, where he’s called an “Haole,” (an outsider) always picked on by the other children. Surfing became his obsession and escape.
Hunter was one of the many memorable characters the author develops as part of Sharkey’s life journey. A writer, his relationship with Sharkey’s represents his transition from a child to maturity. Hunter was an advocate, and praised him (although Sharkey never read his books). Hunter stops listening and begins withdrawing from life until he finally shoots himself. Sharkey “found the wave but had no one to share it with.”
Just when I was wondering where else the “Godfather of travel writing” would take us, Sharkey’s surfing competitions lead him to the far reaches of the surfing world like Tahiti, Cape Town, South Africa, and to the home of the “water monster” — Nazaré, Portugal, where the waves rise up over one hundred feet. Sharkey considers this possibly life-ending experience the greatest feat a surfer can attain, and stays focused on riding the wave of his life.
Part three focuses on the mysterious identity of the homeless biker Sharkey ran into, and his world begins to crumble. Upon arriving at their home after work, his British nurse companion, Olive, finds him “in a blank gaze, and sinking” and determines that the only way to get his life back on course is to identify who the man he killed was and accept his guilt. Her normal supportive nature provides serious tough love for Sharkey:
The police “gave you a pass . . .. You’re a sixty-two-year-old man,” Olive said, holding him still, piercing him with her stare. “You’re selfish, narcissistic, and ungrateful. You’ve spent your whole life doing whatever the bloody hell you’ve wanted to, living on your mother’s money. All I’ve ever heard from you is how awful the human race is, why most people are worthless, and why do women have children. You’ve had every advantage and you’re still a misanthrope — and for your information, that’s someone who hates people.
Sharkey and Olive begin to investigate the life of the man known as “Max,” which takes them to a homeless camp just fifteen minutes from their house. Their shock at what they encounter is classic Theroux, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who’s traveled the world meeting and questioning some of the most abandoned, isolated people in the world. His attention to detail is uncanny:
Olive saw again that the disorder of the camp was fixed and featureless, and so it was not a camp at all, but a settlement, like the ruin of a scattered household. The burst cushion was left where it had been, those empty cans had not been picked up or kicked aside, the beach chair, the chewed boogie board, the mildewed mattress, the shredded plastic bags —all of it remained as they had seen it before, nothing moved or cleared, giving the squalor the look of solidity. The same piercing smell, too, as before, wood smoke and damp rags and decaying food. Olive was struck—not that it was ugly but that it seemed indestructible and everlasting.
After several conversations with the household members in the homeless settlement they identify the biker, and go to the Ozarks to find his family and, eventually, on to California to meet his ex-wife. Max was actually a successful entrepreneur and sold his business to go to Hawaii and surf. Bringing the story full circle, Max actually knew of and respected Sharkey. Max’s wife admits to Sharkey how cruel she was to Max and mentions how much their “free spirits” have in common. This encounter reflects the different types of people that arrive in Hawaii under very different circumstances and how their lives are often intertwined.
Dealing with the tragic accident and his turbulent past, Sharkey is “released” from the tragic past after meeting Max’s wife a second time while in California. He finds his true calling when he begins teaching some young, novice surfers, reminding them, “In the water, you’re somebody special. Remember that.”
The author’s graceful use of language takes the reader through Sharkey’s life and reflects the cultural diversity that is Hawaii. His use of Pidgin English gives the story a unique feel. I was familiar with many of the terms, as it resembled Krio of Sierra Leone, where I worked for several years, but the author adds many native Hawaiian terms which add to the authenticity,
“Oh, da cute!” “You try the pig?” Wallis said to Sharkey, tapping her chopsticks on the platter of dark shredded kalua pig. “They imu it round the back. Hee Hing famous for it.” Before Sharkey could respond, Winston said to his mother, “I told that fricken haole guy he never join the hui. Hell with him. He never bring no omiyage for present.”
The author broadens the linguistic diversity with this passage about Sharkey’s companion.
At home, Olive was talkative, seeming to reassure herself, her characteristic and chatty back-and-forth, the way she muttered when she was alone, thinking out loud, more slangy and British when she talked to herself — grumble . . . “Cuppa tea would do me a power of good . . . Get cracking”— all of it unintelligible to Sharkey.
Theroux brings his tale to a close like few other writers, with the funeral for the deceased bike rider Max,
Round him, in the lacework of sun-flecked shade, the surfers young and old, the young ones chattering, the older ones solemn and silent — Jock, Garrett, Brock, Ryan, the Florence brothers, and others on the beach sitting cross-legged, some pacing. Sharkey recognized Stickney and Wencil, Alex, Fonoti and Frawley, and from the kapu camp Rhonda, Winona, and Kimo, and the schoolchildren gathered near them. Skippy Lehua had come with some of his grommets, and Sugar with her three children, May and her Chinese husband. All of them tense and tearful in their gaudy shirts. Moe was there. So was I. “Insane,” Sharkey murmured.
As we gathered on the foreshore, three black-and-white HPD police cruisers drew up at the edge of the parking lot. Six officers got out and marched to the beach, where they stood in a line, at attention, and saluted. Onlookers too, early risers, rock jumpers, beachgoers, gawkers, tourists, crowding the surfers. A hoarse haole voice: “Some kind of Wayan ceremony?”
Only to be topped off with this memorable last scene with Sharkey who,
. . . tipped his board into the wave’s shallow sloping face and got to his feet. Without effort, like a hero on a flying carpet, not tensed in a surfer’s stance but standing confidently upright, a fearless boy again. Hands on hips, he slid.
The author definitely dispels the popular image of some writers who stay for a week, gushing about the marvelous beaches, the excellent food, the heavenly weather, filling travel pages with holiday hyperbole. As Theroux points out, “Hawaii has a well-deserved reputation as a special set of islands, a place apart, fragrant with blossoms, caressed by trade winds., vibrant with the plucking of ukuleles, effulgent with sunshine spanking the water . . .” and none of this is wrong, although Theroux’s book shows that there so much more.
Mark Walker (Guatemala 1971-73) has spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association for Non-Fiction. He’s a contributing author to Revue Magazine and has a column in the Arizona Authors’ Association Newsletter. His next book is tentatively entitled, The Moritz Thomsen Reader: His Books, His Letters and His Legacy Told by the Writers Who Knew Him Best. Mark can be found at www.MillionMileWalker.com