Books: A Concert of Pacific Overtures ; Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux Hamish Hamilton, Pounds 16.99, 441pp; Julian Evans Applauds a Return to Form as the Once-Bitter Traveller Gets Happy in Hawaii
Evans, Julian, The Independent (London, England)
PAUL THEROUX is still in that period once rather bureaucratically described by Somerset Maugham as that "during which [a writer] will bring forth what he had in him to bring forth in the perfection of which he is capable". In the last decade, his writing has been uneven - formulaic to some, and vainglorious in his account of his friendship with Sir Vidia Naipaul - but in his 60th year he still has what some novelists yearn for: ease with a story.
There remains something terrifically fit about his writing, a quality that works to enormous advantage in this crossover novel that is also a collection of short stories. The fitness isn't so much in his observation, or the atmosphere or characters, as in his combat-readiness with an anecdote. His narrator in Hotel Honolulu, a somewhat washed-up writer, is equally fit with his literary references, especially to Henry James (Theroux has him befriend fellow Hawaii resident Leon Edel, who was James's biographer), but the real comparison here is with Maupassant. Hotel Honolulu spills over with anecdotes of the flesh.
This is reasonable, given the novel's conceit. Said washed-up writer grasps the chance to start a new life when offered a job as manager of "the last small, old hotel in Honolulu" - though it has a Maugham-ish front and a multi-storey concrete tower behind. The ex- writer needs work; he also comes by an island wife, Sweetie, and a daughter, Rose. "People talked. I listened. I observed... My guests were naked. I sometimes trespassed, and it became my life". Few things, as he writes, are more potentially erotic than a hotel room, "and therefore so penetrated with life and death". Through eight years accumulating anecdotes of his guests - the sequence runs to a prodigal 80 stories - he revitalises his writing desire.
Over the course of the novel these anecdotes - joined by time and reappearances, by relationships and incidents - turn into a zoo, a bestiary of American life. Most of the view is enjoyably, startlingly unpredictable (though not the fact that Sweetie is sprung from the loins of a US president, a surprise I think most people with an ounce of guesswork will nail). But the owner of the hotel, Buddy Hamstra, five-star drunkard and self- confessed sonofabitch, sets a tone for vividness and memorability that the guests succeed in living up to. …