It’s a toss-up whether Paul Theroux is better known as a novelist or a travel writer. Whichever it might be, he has chosen to mark his eightieth birthday with a novel (his 32nd) which could well fit both categories. Set in Hawaii (Theroux’s home for thirty-plus years) and with a champion surfer as its central character, it introduces us from the get-go to the global geography of surfing – from the ‘great wave at Cortes Bank’ (a submerged island over a hundred miles from San Diego) to the ‘Shippies’ off Tasmania to Lanzarote to the forty-five foot waves at Waimea. Tellingly, the history of the protagonist’s surfing achievements is to be read in tattoos on his back and elsewhere.
This protagonist, Joe Starkey (‘Da Shark’), is now 62 and, in a truly revelatory scene at the very beginning of the novel, the younger surfers at a surfers’ party do not recognize him nor, when he mentions his name, does that ring a bell with them, not even slightly. This is an existential crisis for Joe. Surfing isn’t something he does, it’s what he is, it’s what he lives for and lives from. ‘The appeal of surfing to Sharkey was that it was improvisational…a dance on water…a way of living your life…[and] some of the greatest rides, on the biggest waves, were never seen by anyone except the surfer…the epitome of performance art.’ Now he’s aging and his sponsors are fading away. It doesn’t help that he has no awareness outside himself. Utter self-absorption doesn’t begin to describe his perceptions. If he’s not Da Shark, he’s non-existent.
One evening, after drinking far far too much, the drink fueling a prolonged morose conversation with his girlfriend, he kills a bicyclist, running into him on a narrow road in ‘dense and dirty nighttime rain.’ When a policeman arrives at the scene, he’s awed when he realizes that he’s dealing with Joe Sharkey. The older generation knows well who he is. The conversation, dealing only peremptorily with the accident, immediately turns to surfing history: ‘I seen you here at Waimea, way back, on a big wave. My old man surfed Waimea. Ray DeSouza.’ ‘”Ray-Ban,” we called him,’ Sharkey replies. Joe’s girlfriend, a nurse, is dumbstruck by what seems their callous indifference: ‘Her voice cracking with anger, Olive said, “What about this poor man?”’ She, being English and relatively recently arrived in the islands, is distanced personally from this at-home camaraderie. They ignore her, the policeman caught up in talking surfing with the legend, Joe using his celebrity to finesse the fatal accident, both at the scene and at the police station (where they hardly question him but simply accept his word that he had not been drinking).
But unsympathetic magic is lying in wait for Sharkey. The residual beliefs of the native Hawaiians – death and vengeance and taboo – are a natural part of the surfer’s world. When Joe drives his damaged car to a garage for an appraisal, the mechanic responds: ‘This car kapu, it’s a bad ting. It stay with human blood. Koko bring trouble…. Da mana is on the car, but it a curse, yah.’ Bad turns to worse. Joe falls apart, physically and, deprived of surfing, mentally as well. His self-absorbed detachment from other people deepens; he turns into a repetitive story-telling bore, living in his own world of past achievements, ever forgetful that he’s told each story over and over. Olive insists on an MRI. The doctors clear him. When Olive informs him of the good news, he has no memory of the hospital visit. He becomes so incapable of dealing with mundane daily life that he’s a danger to others and to himself. In no condition to surf, he goes out – in a desperate attempt to heal himself – and wipes out. The monster wave drags him down – ‘under the wave at Waimea’ – and only the presence of other surfers saves him from certain drowning. ‘He was almost unrecognizable – a different man inked with Sharkey’s tattoos, corpse-white, his eyes pink and staring, his hands and feet bluish and badly cut…his hair spiky and wild.’ Olive, who’d been on the verge of leaving him, stays. Together, with her pushing providing the momentum, they begin a search for the identity of the man he killed, the ‘drunk homeless guy’ with no ID.
This search becomes a therapeutic odyssey to restore in Sharkey (in telling ways, indeed, to inculcate for the first time) a sense of being a human being, his self-identity no longer the surfing champion but a whole person capable of empathy. The story of what they find and of how Joe finds himself through their discoveries of the truth about the man he killed are revelatory in ways you can’t anticipate. This novel is a wondrous meditation on aging, on trauma, on the grasping for a self-awareness that is living itself, on confronting the demons within us.
Paul Theroux Under the Wave at Waimea (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), pp. 409 ISBN: 9780358446286 $28 | Buy: Amazon
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