Professional Hawaiian surfer Joe Sharkey, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s superb new novel, “Under the Wave at Waimea,” is in trouble — even before he accidentally kills a bicyclist on a dark, rain-drenched road on Oahu’s North Shore. Old-timers recognize and are thrilled to meet “the Shark,” as he’s nicknamed. But to the younger surfing crowd, 62-year-old Joe is “just another leathery geezer in flip-flops.”
In short, he’s feeling old.
“When did it happen?” he wonders. “It wasn’t sudden — no illness, no failure; it had stolen upon him.”
While he has all he needs, including a recently acquired English girlfriend, he’s worried that acknowledging his luck will make it vanish. And then the accident happens.
Theroux (“The Mosquito Coast”) has lived part time in Hawaii for more than 30 years, and in 2001 he set one of his liveliest novels there, “Hotel Honolulu,” a rogues’ gallery portrait of the capital of the 50th state, seen from an outsider’s point of view.
“Under the Wave” goes deeper, however. Its immersion in the physical essence and social divides of Hawaii feels profoundly experienced rather than merely observed.
The book is steeped not just in Joe’s dedication of his life to crashing waves, but in the stern sense of 38-year-old Olive, an emergency room nurse who, when Joe’s life derails, takes startling measures to steer him back on track. They’ve only been together one month, but their bond is surprisingly tight and stable. It needs to be, given Joe’s baffling reaction to the accident.
“[H]e seemed to separate from himself and become a bystander to his own life,” Theroux writes. An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that Joe, with his frequent retellings of past surfing glories, his memory lapses and evasive responses to Olive’s queries, is showing signs of dementia or brain injury. Olive even takes him to a medical clinic for a cognitive evaluation.
When that turns up nothing useful, she tries another tack: uncovering the identity of Joe’s victim as a way to force Joe to acknowledge what happened. This mission becomes more urgent after Joe, trying to get back to surfing, nearly drowns at the North Shore spot where he made his reputation.
Here, the novel feels as if it’s going to become a criminal procedural, with guilty Joe — under pressure from Olive — clumsily seeking some sort of justice for his nameless victim. But Theroux has something else in mind.
In a novella-length flashback that feels as messy and happenstance-filled as an actual life, Theroux reveals the shaky underpinnings of Joe’s social and emotional character, starting from his first arrival on Oahu as a military brat at the height of the Vietnam War.
When Joe is bullied at a school, where he’s one of the few white kids, his battlefield veteran father advises him: “Consider yourself already dead, and you’ll be fine.”
Joe’s judgmental mother is a psychic hazard in other ways, to the point where he finally tells her, “I know I’m a disappointment to you. … But I’m not a disappointment to myself.”
His defiance comes from his surfing prowess and mastery of “breaking waves — no longer unreadable in their turbulence but distinct in their changing forms, rising, cresting, tubing, far from chaotic, showing rideable contours.”
Theroux’s conjuring of surfing’s allure to Joe is incantatory, ecstatic, hypnotic. Joe’s surf-centric travels over the world are another highlight of the book, with Theroux’s Trevor Noah-worthy gift for rendering accents and dialects on the page getting a good workout.
The people Joe meets through surfing are an alternative tribe that gradually accepts him, although the fleeting hookups and affairs he has with the women among them usually leave him with feelings of bewilderment, abandonment or lucky escape.
Theroux, a veteran kayaker, isn’t a notable surfer to my knowledge. Yet “Under the Wave at Waimea” reads like lived sensation. It’s peopled with real surfing legends, many of them native Hawaiian, and includes a gleeful portrait of writer Hunter S. Thompson, who briefly becomes one of Joe’s buddies, though Joe is literally allergic to reading. (“The mildewed smell of books in Hawaii made them seem poisonous — you couldn’t open them without sneezing.”)
Back in the present, Joe and Olive’s search for the identity of his crash victim becomes a convoluted and surprise-filled “quest.” It also takes the reader into the more desperate corners of Hawaii’s homeless encampments.
Some elements of the novel — that Olive could be so firmly entrenched in Joe’s life after only one month, that the bibliophobic Joe is sometimes so eloquent about surfing — ask for more than the usual suspension of disbelief. But as in much of Theroux’s fiction, the bold symmetries and heightened language make it clear that he’s aiming for something beyond routine naturalism.
Indeed, “Under the Wave at Waimea” immerses you so elaborately in its watery world that you may start seeing surfing as just another guise for life itself. And as in life, it can leave you feeling uncertain of where you’re headed.
“You’re on the wrong road,” someone tells Joe late in the book.
“Where’s the right one?” he asks.
“The one that leads somewhere.”
This probing tale of a man who’s come undone and the strong, stark woman who thinks she can reassemble him is one of Theroux’s best novels.