"Under the Wave at Waimea" | Reviewed by William Winkler
Paul Theroux is known as both a novelist (“The Mosquito Coast”) and a travel writer (The Great Railway Bazaar”). His latest book, “Under the Wave at Waimea,” combines elements of both aspects of his work.
“Waimea” is the story of Joe Sharkey, an aging but still vigorous upper echelon surfer. The son of an Army Special Forces colonel who died in Joe’s youth, and an alcoholic mother whose death left him independently wealthy, Sharkey is a free spirit whose entire existence depends on his relationship to the water and his ability to conquer its rising and falling. A high school dropout, Sharkey is proud to say he has held only one job in his lifetime (and that only briefly); a lifeguard on the north shore of O’ahu.
The book is divided into three sections. The first introduces us to Sharkey, describes his world, and culminates in two life-altering events, one on land and one in the water. The second steps back in time and lets us watch Sharkey grow into the world-class surfer he becomes. The third describes how Sharkey moves beyond the circumstances that changed his life, gaining new insight into himself and the world he lives in.
Those who have enjoyed Theroux’s travel writing will find plenty to relish here. Sharkey’s search and conquest of the ultimate 100-foot wave off the Portuguese coast, his trek through South Africa, and his exploration of sparsely inhabited Christmas Island will remind those who have read Theroux’s travel books of his attention to detail and powers of description.
And those who know of Theroux’s career and literary relationships will not be surprised by the accounts of Sharkey’s time in the presence of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a man Sharkey admired not only for his legendary excesses but also for the fact that Thompson had written not one, but many books. Sharkey could not imagine writing a book; indeed, he admitted he had probably never read one.
Theroux splits his time between living in Hawai’i and Massachusetts. He offers a strong understanding of native Hawai’ian culture and its thinly veiled resentment of mainland culture and the changes the haoles have wrought on what was at one time a proud and independent kingdom.
“Under the Wave at Waimea” presents a deep familiarity with the surfing culture and those who adhere to it. The book will be a satisfying read for those who have always longed to visit Hawai’i but have yet to travel there.