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

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

Paul Theroux, who has averaged roughly a book a year since 1967 and who turned 80 last month, isn’t slowing down. Not for him the approach of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, whose fiction dwindled into novellas before stopping entirely. Theroux’s new novel is a full-fat epic, inspired by his adopted home of Hawaii (he divides his time between there and Cape Cod: must be rather tiring, to quote Basil Fawlty).

This is the story of champion surfer Joe Sharkey, to whom surfing is “a dance on water … not a sport at all … but a way of living your life”, who surfs a wave as though “carving his signature on it”. But this surfer dude – famous at 17, a champion at 20 – is now 62 years old, not really a dude any more, and not too sure about the surfer bit either. He enjoys a level of renown, though some younger surfers haven’t heard of him, and ageing fame isolates. He doesn’t have any friends, and chatting up a young waitress, he’s stopped short when she says her boyfriend’s father “used to see you in the lineup when he was a kid”. Oof.

Backstory is always a risk – do we need to know why the hero is that way? Can’t the reader decide for themselves?

It’s a tentative existence that won’t take much to knock it off balance, and the fulcrum of Joe’s destabilisation is when he hits and kills a “drunk homeless guy” with his car. Joe is a man who copes with bad stuff by not remembering it. But memory, like the tide, keeps bringing things back, and the crash sets him off on two paths into the past: his own and that of the dead man. Or rather, it sets Theroux off, as he can’t resist a 180-page dive into Joe’s childhood.

Backstory is always a risk – do we need to know why the hero is that way? Can’t the reader decide for themselves? – but it’s kept interesting with lashings of death, drugs, alcoholism, misbehaviour and, this being a Theroux novel, parents who are no better than they ought to be. We even get a cameo from Hunter S Thompson, though his countercultural shtick is no more interesting here than it was in his own work.

But this excess of detail is symptomatic of Theroux’s approach. It’s reminiscent of James Salter, an omniscient plenipotentiary of his own fictional world, dispensing information liberally (like Salter, he has a weakness for tales of men battling themselves, and for queasy sex scenes: “he sank to sleep after that … wrung out by the convulsive lovemaking”). So we’re told repeatedly that Joe’s ageing makes him a “bystander”, a “stranger”, “a wraith among the pretty girls and golden boys”. And sometimes the details are doubtful anyway, as when Joe’s girlfriend, a thirtysomething Englishwoman, says things like “mustn’t grumble”, “oik”, “goolies” or “flaming bloody bore”. Cor blimey, what a bleedin’ carry on! Can you tell Theroux last lived in England in 1990?

But his facility keeps the pages turning, especially when Joe finds out more and more about the man he killed, and has to deal with native Hawaiian distrust of white “haoles” (incomers) like him. Under the Wave at Waimea asks where we should measure a life from: its high point or its end point? And it works best if you don’t sweat the details too much and just let its wave sweep over you.

• Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux is published by Hamish Hamilton (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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