Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hotel Honolulu

The narrator in Hotel Honolulu is a writer "with a hard-to-pronounce name." He grew up in Medford to become a "grumpy traveler in a book that had been a bestseller in the 1970s." He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He arrived in Hawaii at age 49 having left "a house and a wife and a whole life in London."

Now he is the manager of a hotel, which becomes for him "a house of fiction," a collection of tales about himself, the owner, the staff, and the guests. Many of these stories are lurid – lots of sex and corpses. Some are told in a single chapter, others are more expansive. Unifying them are the evolving and somewhat parallel stories of the owner (he marries a whore) and the narrator (he marries a whore's daughter).

The owner is Buddy Hamstra, nicknamed Tuna, a wealthy foul-mouthed joker who won the hotel in a poker game. One of his favourite pranks is putting dogshit in hair dryers. He says to his latest wife, "I wouldn’t piss up your ass if your guts were on fire." Theroux tempers such crudeness (and there is plenty) with numerous literary references, in particular to Tolstoy ("Tolstoys 'R Us"), Henry James (he "would love Hawaii"), and Stephen King ("a modest talent").

In the end the narrator becomes a beekeeper. It's not too different from being a hotel manager: the staff do all the work.

Miscellaneous Notes

The hotel has 80 rooms, the book 80 chapters. The name of the hotel's bar is Paradise Lost. One of the hotel's signature dishes is Serious Flu Symptoms Chili.

Referring to some of the characters in the novel, the narrator says: "If they had read anything I had written, they would never tell me stories." Some of their names: Clamback, Fishlow, Godbolt, Lionberg, Malanut, Figland, and Kamakawiwo'ole, a 650-lb Hawaiian singer who needs a forklift to get around.

The narrator provides a blurb for a novel by Ruth Jhabvala, upon a request from Jackie Onassis (who, after the death of her second husband, worked as an editor for Viking and Doubleday). Does she represent a royal figure in this beehive of a novel? The Kennedy lineage figures elsewhere in the book.

Leon Edel is a Henry James scholar who grew up in Saskatchewan, attended McGill, and was living in Hawaii at the time of his death in 1997. Theroux makes him a character in the novel. Edel, says the narrator, is "the only person in Hawaii who knew me – and in the most profound and subtle way, through my books, the detailed autobiographical fantasies of my fiction."

Whereas Theroux's travel books are sometimes referred to as "travel novels," Honolulu Hotel, a work of fiction, is semi-autobiographical. Thus, much of his work is about himself. But then what writer's isn't? Theroux does so more provocatively than most.

Theroux is a beekeeper. The brand of honey he produces is called Oceania Ranch Pure Hawaiian Honey.


"Man, he got one big book, howlie bugga."
"I never wen see no book."
"In he office."
"Bugga office?"
"Yah. Howlie bugga office. Big book. Hybolical book."
"Eh, no easy fo read, yah."
"Too much easy for howlie."
"Yah. Bymbye, da howlie bugga be rascal."
"Frikken big rascal."

The book is Anna Karenina. The "howlie bugga" is the narrator. Like Paul Theroux, he is a "frikken big rascal."

Honolulu Star-Bulletin Interview