Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux review – death, drugs and board games

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Paul Theroux, who has averaged roughly a ebook a 12 months since 1967 and who turned 80 final month, isn’t slowing down. Not for him the method of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, whose fiction dwindled into novellas earlier than stopping solely. Theroux’s new novel is a full-fat epic, impressed by his adopted residence of Hawaii (he divides his time between there and Cape Cod: should be relatively tiring, to cite Basil Fawlty).

This is the story of champion surfer Joe Sharkey, to whom browsing is “a dance on water … not a sport at all … but a way of living your life”, who surfs a wave as if “carving his signature on it”. But this surfer dude – well-known at 17, a champion at 20 – is now 62 years previous, probably not a dude any extra, and not too certain about the surfer bit both. He enjoys a stage of renown, although some youthful surfers haven’t heard of him, and ageing fame isolates. He doesn’t have any associates, and chatting up a younger waitress, he’s stopped brief when she says her boyfriend’s father “used to see you in the lineup when he was a kid”. Oof.

It’s a tentative existence that received’t take a lot to knock it off steadiness, and the fulcrum of Joe’s destabilisation is when he hits and kills a “drunk homeless guy” along with his automobile. Joe is a person who copes with dangerous stuff by not remembering it. But reminiscence, like the tide, retains bringing issues again, and the crash units him off on two paths into the previous: his personal and that of the lifeless man. Or relatively, it units Theroux off, as he can’t resist a 180-page dive into Joe’s childhood.

Backstory is all the time a danger – do we have to know why the hero is that method? Can’t the reader determine for themselves? – however it’s stored attention-grabbing with lashings of demise, drugs, alcoholism, misbehaviour and, this being a Theroux novel, mother and father who’re no higher than they must be. We even get a cameo from Hunter S Thompson, although his countercultural shtick is not any extra attention-grabbing right here than it was in his personal work.

But this extra of element is symptomatic of Theroux’s method. It’s paying homage to James Salter, an omniscient plenipotentiary of his personal fictional world, meting out data liberally (like Salter, he has a weak spot for tales of males battling themselves, and for queasy intercourse scenes: “he sank to sleep after that … wrung out by the convulsive lovemaking”). So we’re advised repeatedly that Joe’s ageing makes him a “bystander”, a “stranger”, “a wraith among the pretty girls and golden boys”. And typically the particulars are uncertain anyway, as when Joe’s girlfriend, a thirtysomething Englishwoman, says issues like “mustn’t grumble”, “oik”, “goolies” or “flaming bloody bore”. Cor blimey, what a bleedin’ stick with it! Can you inform Theroux final lived in England in 1990?

But his facility retains the pages turning, particularly when Joe finds out extra and extra about the man he killed, and has to cope with native Hawaiian mistrust of white “haoles” (incomers) like him. Under the Wave at Waimea asks the place we must always measure a life from: its excessive level or its finish level? And it really works finest in case you don’t sweat the particulars an excessive amount of and simply let its wave sweep over you.

Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux is printed by Hamish Hamilton (£18.99). To order a replica go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery prices could apply

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