Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, June 24, 2001



Theroux’s new book
is fiction at its best

Review: Welcome to the Hotel Honolulu

Review by Finn Honoré
Special to the Star-Bulletin

"Hotel Honolulu"
By Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin, 424 pages)

I KNOW IT'S THERE, still. A wonderful place. Truly. I've spent time in the lobby, hung out at the bar, eyed the ebb and flow of guests. The Hotel Honolulu -- it's worth the hunt.

Walk down Kalakaua, the milky blue ocean on your left, past the Waikiki Beach Center and the Sheraton Moana, take a moment to admire that lovely grand dame, the Royal Hawaiian, then cross Lewers. The next street -- it's narrow, one way -- turn right. In the middle of the block, the Kodama on the left and the Waikiki Pearl on the right, is the Hotel Honolulu.


Mauka Makai cover

In size and amenities, if stood beside the Outrigger Waikiki or the Princess Kaiulani, it would seem a poor relative, the plantation-style facade no higher than a coconut tree, seeming a bit faded, worn, like a decades-old aloha shirt purchased at Hilo Hattie's and in need of a button or two, the hem a bit frayed, yet still colorful and garish and, in its own way, splendid.

The lobby? Not expansive, a reception desk with stacks of coupons for free drinks at happy hour, clusters of bamboo chairs, cushions covered in prints of hibiscus and bird of paradise. Decor, vintage cruise ship. Off to the left is the pool and pool-side lanai and beyond, to the right, a bar, named by the manager, a once famous writer, with great and unabashed irony, Paradise Lost, favored by locals. Where evening entertainment is provided by the very local band, Sub-Dude, playing slack-key guitar songs accompanied by the clinking of glass, all merging with the chatter of birds as the last remnants of daylight fade.

Sit at the bar and Tran, the Vietnamese bartender, will pour a respectable drink, tall and cool. Order a meal from the coffee shop, chef Peewee's Spam musubis or Serious Flu Symptoms Chili, and it will be served to you by one of two waiters, Fishlow or Wilnice. Both have gimpy legs, one listing to port the other to starboard, struggling to stay vertical as they carry in your dinner entree.

There's an elevator, but the stairs are a sure thing.

Stay in one of the rooms, say 409, but keep in mind that the sounds of hammering that you hear will not be maintenance doing ritual repairs, but a woodworker, Roland Miranda, inhabiting the room just above, building something mysterious, a reclusive carpenter who struck a bargain with Buddy Hamstra, the owner, and now refuses to leave. And don't be surprised if the sounds of that muted construction are erotic and arousing.

It's quite a place, the Hotel Honolulu, made even more so by the fact that it springs from the imagination of Paul Theroux.

So, how to say this without sounding gushy and over-the-top: Mr. Theroux's novel, "Hotel Honolulu," is superb. Fiction at its best.

Though hotels by definition cater to the transient, and many of the characters in "Hotel Honolulu" appear only briefly, others reappear throughout the novel, becoming ever more significant, interesting, and central. They are vivid and wonderful, exotic and enigmatic. Some are locals who visit the hotel to spend long evenings in Paradise Lost. Others arrive in the lobby, weighted down by personal baggage and a few pieces of luggage, many so colorful, blossoming so quickly, that though their stay is short-lived, they are clearly delineated and sorely missed when they check out. Everyone, without exception, has a story, and a hotel is perhaps one of the most ideal places to make full disclosure.

While it could be said that "Hotel Honolulu" has no overt plot, there is, in fact, a story, woven into the chapters, focusing on Buddy Hamstra, flawed haole owner and longtime resident of Hawaii, living in decadent splendor on the North Shore, self-destructive, and a larger-than-life presence at the hotel. Or the resident manager, the narrator, an aging, famous mainland writer, unknown in Hawaii, and who, from his unique vantage point, observes all that he can and tells the tale.

Theroux has created a compelling and terrific read, generous and insightful, every chapter a nugget. Living for the last decade or more on the North Shore, he is not a visitor to Hawaii and so writes with an intimate sense of the people, their passions and strengths and foibles. Theroux is blunt, irreverent and respectful when it comes to sharing his views of Hawaii's residents, however temporary or permanent or indigenous.

Hawaii is paradise lost, or so many believe. Others, with no memory of Hawaii before, might argue it is paradise found. But perhaps, like the residents of Hotel Honolulu, the islands have always been imperfect, possessing a history which has been both noble and tragic, petty and mundane, but always unique. However, because this is Hawaii, all is framed by an incomparable, stunning beauty.

While it is helpful to have walked over the same ground, wandered down Kalakaua, watched the waves form and fall at Queen's Beach, looked intently at the setting sun, clapping in delight at the green flash, it is not a prerequisite to enjoying this book. All things human are to a degree recognizable, and "Hotel Honolulu" is filled with humanity.

This novel is a journey, from the lobby to the rooms above and back, a crooked, meandering journey not great in distance but definitely rewarding.

Finn Honoré is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer.

Welcome ... to the
Hotel Honolulu

Columnist Charles Memminger's
review of "Hotel Honolulu," to the
tune of "Hotel California"
by the Eagles.

"Hotel Honolulu"
By Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin, 424 pages)

By Charles Memminger

ON A DARK BEDSIDE TABLE, was a book sitting there
It was Paul Theroux's latest, a tome I handled with care
You never know where you'll end up, when you delve into his books
Will you visit a Mosquito Coast? Or meet some Hong Kong crooks?

Living on the North Shore, Paul's got tales to tell
He can lift you to heaven, or he can drag you to hell
As I turned to the first page, I had a feeling of dread
I heard a voice deep inside my mind
This is what it said:

Welcome to the "Hotel Honolulu"
Two blocks off the beach, rates within your reach
Plenty of rats at the "Hotel Honolulu"
Along the rodent line, but mostly tourist kine

The manager is haole, they say he wrote a book
His past stalks him like a shadow, but he doesn't turn to look
Now 80 rooms of weirdness, are his sole domain
His new wife is kanaka, his boss Buddy is insane

Dead guy on the fifth floor, nude guests sporting in the pool
Sipping whisky in the seedy lounge, a hooker on a stool
Some might call it charming, some even quaint
There's no doubt about it, Holiday Inn this ain't

(Repeat Chorus)

Welcome to the "Hotel Honolulu"
Such a moving book, really worth a look
Not all sex 'n gore at the "Hotel Honolulu"
But the rogues and tarts, were my favorite parts

Life is like a hotel, multi-stories, each sublime
We are all just visitors here, waiting for check out time
Or as you might say in pidgin: Life's jus' one beeg luau
Mo betta for enjoy' em, brah, cuz one day we all be pau

(Repeat Chorus, or go get a Mai Tai)

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