A Review of Paul Theroux’s “Under the Wave at Waimea”
Hang 10, Surfer Joe
As I age, I find that I prefer my anonymity. I’ve tasted fame, a little bit of it, and have to admit that it isn’t what it’s cracked up to be — people, it seems, just want to pull you down off your pedestal, so fame is incredibly exhausting to maintain if you want to be viewed with any dose of positivity. The protagonist in Paul Theroux’s latest novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, has the opposite problem, though. Joe Sharkey is a 62-year-old surfer from Hawaii, and he is struggling to retain his relevance. He’ll go to parties where there are younger surfers, and nobody there seems to recognize him or understand who he is — which is as something of a local celebrity among Hawaiians of a certain (advanced) age. He wants to be known and remembered, and he tells stories about his past to anyone who’ll listen. The problem is, he only has so many stories about himself, so he repeats himself at times, sometimes even embellishing the stories with clear cut lies. Thus, Under the Wave at Waimea is a story that looks back on a life that’s been lived. At least, it does so in part.
The novel is also about privilege. Joe Sharkey is enough of a name that when he runs over a drugged-up, homeless man on a bicycle with his car and kills him, he pretty much gets away with it, despite having at least three beers in his system. However, because Sharkey has bad luck from the moment of the accident onward, even nearly drowning at one point, he and his girlfriend Olive — who is much younger than him at 38-years-old — set out to find out who the nameless victim was as a human being, and then to honor his life. Most of the detective work is done by Olive, but, gradually, Sharkey comes to take responsibility in his role in the accident, which is fitting because, as a surfer, he has known no responsibility other than to himself and the monster waves he seeks out to conquer.
Under the Wave at Waimea is a long book. It covers a lot of ground from the contemporary mystery story involving the accident victim to a biography of Joe Sharkey as a professional surfer. This book is really two (or three) novels bundled into one and will take you some time to read — particularly since there isn’t an awful lot of dialogue in the novel to take up a lot of space. The book also starts a little slowly, but your patience will be rewarded if you stick with this tome. It is fiercely fascinating and wonderfully poetic — which is apt because Paul Theroux is most known as a travel writer, perhaps more so than for his fiction writing. (He did write the novel The Mosquito Coast, which was made into a movie with Harrison Ford in the ’80s, so there’s that.) Even though I’m pretty sure that much of this book is fiction, it, at times, scans as autobiography.
The reason it does is due to the fact Theroux has lived in Hawaii for a long time. He imbues this book with the dialect and customs of native Hawaiians. However, there are touches of the personal life in this novel, too. For instance, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is a character in the book, and the “friendship” between Sharkey the surfer and Thompson the writer is chronicled. It is an unlikely friendship because Sharkey is the type of guy who will never read a book; however, there’s something about the wildly unpredictable behaviour of Thompson’s antics that draws Sharkey to him. Even though the novel is fiction, you’re left wondering as a reader as to how much of this “fiction” is true and if Theroux knew Thompson intimately, and how much of Under the Wave at Waimea is a Theroux’s stab at writing about himself in a thinly veiled way. One has to wonder how much surfing Theroux has done in his life because he writes about the subject with authority and clarity. The book feels true in its precision and attention to detail.
Under the Wave at Waimea is something of a masterpiece from a master writer. Yes, I did find that the book often circles back upon itself and repeats itself many, many times, which becomes something of a distraction, but I had to wonder as to the deliberateness as this as a flourish. Does the author repeat himself as a form of dementia at growing older? Or does he repeat himself as the teller of tales of a finite life and only has so many stories to tell? (Even Haruki Murakami has been known to repeat symbolism and plot devices in his later books that were first used in some of his earlier ones.) I’m leaning towards the latter and not the former — it is an authorial tic. As Joe Sharkey grows as a character and comes to accept his role in the fatal crash and his privilege that protects him from serious repercussions, new layers are added onto him which will possibly lead to new, more truthful versions of the stories he tells.
This is the book about the making of a hero — once as a surfer, and once as an aging man who has done something wrong. Under the Wave at Waimea is a lot of things, but you can take it as a great surfing yarn filled with colorful characters and dialect that almost teaches you how to read the book as it goes on. There’s a lot to think about with this novel, and it is a challenging book without being overly complicated or hard to read. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of book that might get added to the syllabuses of university English courses, as there’s a lot that can be studied in this book. At the end of the day, as the sun sets on the greenish blue surf of the Pacific, Under the Wave at Waimea is a book with few, and only minor wipeouts — and, as such, is a marvel to behold. Indeed, this is a gem of a novel about a life lived recklessly on the ocean and I’m now glad to attach my name to such a reveal in a relatively non-anonymous way.
Paul Theroux’s Under the Wave at Waimea was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 13, 2021.
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