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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Under the Wave at Waimea

Paul Theroux

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To purchase Under the Wave at Waimea

Title: Under the Wave at Waimea
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 409 pages
Availability: Under the Wave at Waimea - US
Under the Wave at Waimea - UK
Under the Wave at Waimea - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : somewhat misshapen, but a good, engaging read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 24/4/2021 Christian House
Literary Review . 5/2021 Ian Critchley
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/5/2021 David Gates
The Observer . 10/5/2021 John Self
Wall St. Journal . 8/5/2021 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Theroux here uses nature as a platform for the male ego, presenting an exotic location laid low by toxic masculinity. (...) This well-conceived and at times striking novel is undermined by two major flaws. Firstly, there is the issue of editing, with missing words, extra words, repetitive phrases suggesting a confusion of drafts and a bulky central section that impedes the dramatic tension built by Sharkey's existential crisis and subsequent search for redemption. And then there is Theroux's fondness for erotic interludes" - Christian House, Financial Times

  • "Under the Wave at Waimea is Theroux's 28th novel (...) so he doesn't need anybody to tell him his business. But didn't he notice that after Part 1 (...) the book loses both tension and forward motion ? (...) Much of the novel's energy comes not from Sharkey, or from the improbably stalwart Olive, but from Theroux's alter ego's alter ego: the real-life writer Hunter S. Thompson, whom Theroux knew personally and who gets a star turn here under his own name." - David Gates, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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. (...) 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." - John Self, The Observer

  • "As with his totemic travel writing, exotic settings and a flair for adventure invigorate the otherwise workmanlike prose, and the scenes flash with surfer's lingo, snatches of Hawaiian pidgin and odes to the ocean. (...) True, the anecdotes can get a touch long-winded. (...) But what Mr. Theroux nicely captures are not just surfing tales but a surfer lifestyle dedicated to self-sufficient contentment (.....) Here is a book about losing happiness and the struggle demanded to recover it. " - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in Under the Wave at Waimea is Joe Sharkey, a surfing legend who now, at age sixty-two, is beginning to realize: "I'm old". When it dawns on him, he sounds resentful about it:

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.
       On the other hand, he's got it pretty good. From his teenage years on he's devoted himself entirely to one thing, surfing, and it's worked out well for him:
     Surfing was easy, everything else was hard; but he had been blessed. He was the luckiest man he knew, a success as a teenager doing something he loved, later living on endorsements and the inheritance from his dead mother's investments, in the most beautiful place he'd ever seen
       He certainly leads a comfortable life, puttering around his Hawaii estate and going out surfing when the fancy strikes him. There's even a woman in his life, Olive, an English nurse he just met a few weeks earlier but who has settled in in his house and works at the local hospital. It's an almost absurdly idyllic life, and the book opens as he's having:
     A perfect day. He'd spent many days like this. He hoped for more.
       Unsurprisingly, things take a turn for the worse. Drunk and high, declining Olive's offer that she drive, and in a storm, Sharkey kills a man riding his bicycle on the drive home. Sure, it's an accident -- the man was riding on the wrong side of the road and likely also intoxicated, the conditions were terrible -- but there's no question that Sharkey was in no small way at fault as well. Still, the police certainly don't make a fuss, or even press Sharkey very hard on what happened. The victim was apparently homeless; Joe Sharkey is ... the well-known Joe Sharkey; they see little reason to seriously investigate what happened.
       Sharkey, too, insists it was simply an accident, and tries to shrug it off as such. But, deep down, it must have hit him hard, and the guilt seems to consume him. He goes into a major funk, telling Olive the same old stories over and over, going through the motions of daily active with barely any recollection of what happened, collapsing even more into solely himself:
Something might not be working inside him, a nerve circuit might have died, yet he was alive. But the stories, the smile, the head-bobbing -- her worry was the sameness, and her anxiety wearied her.
       Olive thinks he has to confront what he did; Sharkey seems incapable of wrapping his head around it, insisting on continuing to think of it -- if at all -- as a simple accident:
     "That drunk homeless guy."
     "It was a man," she said, her voice rising. "You killed him."
     An accident, he thought; an obstacle, like many he'd surfed in his life.
       But this one proves harder to deal with.
       Under the Wave at Waimea is divided into three parts. The first describes Sharkey's life in the present-day, and the events of the weeks following the accident. Several times, Olive is ready to abandon him, but she sticks around. There are times when Sharkey seems to be escaping his funk, but he won't do what's necessary -- admit his full culpability, and the consequences of his action -- and it all comes crashing down on him.
       As he hits the low spot, a hundred pages into the novel, the story leaps back in time. The long middle section of Under the Wave at Waimea returns to Sharkey's childhood and offers a full chronological life-story account (closing when he meets Olive, a few weeks before the accident). The outlines are already familiar from some of what was recounted in the first part, but now it's laid out in much more detail, filling in lots of blanks. We see just how isolated he was at school and his escape in the solitary pursuit of surfing. He's extraordinarily lucky along the way, running into the right people at the right times, and then sliding into surprisingly easy success. He wins prizes and endorsements, allowing him a comfortable life, and he has an ambition to sustain him -- "The hundred foot wave, holy grail of the ocean".
       The third part of the novel then returns to Sharkey's post-accident funk, with Olive now taking the initiative and forcing him to confront what happened: "I'm trying to save you", she admits to him, in the only way she knows how. They revisit the site of the accident; they go to the morgue and look at the body. Even weeks after the accident, the man hasn't been identified, and Olive insists that they do what they can to learn more about him.
       It's arduous piecing together who the homeless man was, but they do. He turns out to have some similarities to Sharkey, the victim another kind of self-made man whose story is even more unlikely than Sharkey's but someone who also, in unusual and larger-than-life fashion, un-made himself (helped along the way by a weakness for drugs).
       The three-part presentation of the novel proves somewhat awkward, the middle part squeezed in between the present-day-action parts but also crowding them to the sides, taking on the dimensions of a novel-within-the-novel. Theroux makes for some connection by having mentioned and alluded to many of the significant events in the first part that are then presented more fully in the second, but in presenting Sharkey's life-story, especially the coming-of-age years, so fully it also escapes him a bit; at these dimensions -- it's by far the longest of the three sections -- it becomes too dominant.
       The final, quest-tale and mystery-solving part also veers a bit far off the initial course, in giving the accident-victim such an unusual life-story as well. Throughout, however, Theroux grounds the novel well in Sharkey's interactions with others -- so also then in the final part in his encounters with the people who actually knew the victim and can provide pieces of information about him. The two extremes -- of those who recognize the celebrity Sharkey, and those who have no idea who he is -- is played out particularly well (including numerous occasions when Sharkey doesn't quite live up to the expectations people have of him).
       Throughout, Sharkey is a solitary figure, and while he is generally happy as such, especially when it is just him and a wave, the larger connection, to other people, is something that he clearly misses; he interacts -- often regaling with his stories -- but he is rarely part of a community or friendship, even his sexual and romantic relationships are limited. In Hawaii -- especially in school, but also then beyond that -- he remains an outsider, a haole, and even if he finds his place it is a separate one rather than truly integrated with any local community. As he already realizes when he's just starting out:
     Alone, Sharkey thought -- I'm alone at school, I'm alone at home, I'm alone here with Uncle Sun. I not you friend ... I you kupuna. I am obviously alone, an obvious haole, with the sun beating down on me, squeezing me small.
       Under the Wave at Waimea is a novel of coming to terms with aging and of drifting out of the spotlight. The comparisons to the also solitary pursuit of writing are obvious, and Theroux often makes them explicit (really explicit, on occasion: "Writing is surfing, surfing is writing") -- while amusingly making Sharkey someone who avoids the written word and has never read a book. (Try as he might, Theroux can't bring himself to keep the writing-life entirely at bay in the novel, making Hunter S. Thompson an admiring friend of Sharkey's, one of the few people he has a deeper relationship with.)
       Under the Wave at Waimea is an oddly shaped novel, built up around an incident -- the accident in which Sharkey kills the bicyclist -- that is on the one hand tremendously significant, fundamentally changing Sharkey, and yet isn't at the fore for much of the novel. Theroux is more fascinated by his protagonist, and how he was shaped; even as he presents how the incident changes Sharkey, he -- like the protagonist -- is always drawn back to capturing the sensation of riding the waves. It's a neat trick: a writer not writing about his own craft but about something very different -- and yet fundamentally, in so many ways, so similar. He's good at it too: there's an awful lot about surfing, yet it's never boring -- nor uninteresting. I'm not sure Theroux captures the actual experience of surfing, but it hardly matters: he captures something, and it's thoroughly engaging.
       If the whole feels unwieldy and misshapen, and some of it forced -- not least Olive, whose willingness to take on so much responsibility for Sharkey despite only recently having come into his life isn't entirely convincingly presented -- Theroux nevertheless hold the reader's attention with his powerfully-written scenes and character-interaction.
       Language plays an important role in the novel, as the novel is also filled with Hawaiian terms and a lot of pidgin, and there's a local patter to the speech of many of the characters. (Only with English Olive does it feel a bit too forced, especially early on -- "Some posh bloke might be tempted, but as soon as she opened her mouth she'd be slagged off as an oik".) Theroux is also attentive to language beyond speech, and at times, at first, the novel can feel over-written:
     In the early hours of muted sallow daylight his tattoos were mottled like bruises, but after sunup they were sharpened, as he lay, facing away from her, his back exposed, a great blue wave covering it like a dragon's mouth, fanglike foam on its jagged crest tipping past the top of his spine
       But ultimately, mostly it works, a cadence to it fitting the unfolding action -- effectively also contrasting the sameness of so much of Sharkey's life and routine and the exceptional of each moment.
       There's an odd fit of stories in Under the Wave at Waimea -- not least the Hunter S. Thompson episodes, but especially in the life of the man who Sharkey killed -- and it doesn't quite seem whole, but it, and the writing, are strong enough to make for an easily compelling work. If not entirely successful, enough of Sharkey's life and story is strong enough to sustain the more rickety parts, and it does make for a quite powerful personal story. (Reflecting also, no doubt, Theroux's own, as Under the Wave at Waimea is only a more radical alternate-biography than many of his previous novels; interestingly, he even allows himself to quietly slip into the story, at the very end, in a rare truly communal scene Sharkey (and the dead man) are at the heart of, listing all those present and concluding: "Moe was there. So was I" (despite the entire rest of the book being presented from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator).)

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 April 2021

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Under the Wave at Waimea: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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