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A Honolulu hotel for fringe sad sacks

The 'island paradise' is transformed to depict America's gritty side

The ever-prolific Paul Theroux, who demonstrated a playful predilection for fantasizing alternate lives for a character named Paul Theroux in his novels, has this time addressed what might well be his worst nightmare: What if he were totally blocked and washed up?

Theroux's writing has long shown a fascination with people out of their element. In "Hotel Honolulu," he imagines a writer who shares many of his biographical particulars but finds himself "humbled and broke again, my brain blocked, feeling superfluous, out of the writing business, and trying to start all over at the age of forty-nine." His narrator gets a job managing a second-rate, 80-room hotel two blocks from the beach in Waikiki.

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Reader beware: The Hawaii Theroux depicts is not the island paradise most tourists know. About the state in which he lives part-time, Theroux writes: "Hawaii was paradise with heavy traffic.... I liked Hawaii because it was a void."

The conceit of a blocked Theroux circumscribed by semiliterates and prostitutes is delicious in its unlikeliness.

Eager to immerse himself in his new life, Theroux's alter-ego quickly marries Sweetie from housekeeping, the pretty daughter of Puamana, a resident prostitute. One of Theroux's more outrageous constructs is that Sweetie, who is reduced to tears when she tries to penetrate Tolstoy's "Anna Cara Neena," is actually JFK's illegitimate daughter, sired on a secret visit to Hawaii in 1962 when the president asked to spend a night with "a little coconut princess." The "island girl" was Puamana, then a fresh convent runaway, too naive to recognize Kennedy. Hearing this, the narrator insists on naming his new daughter Rose, for her supposed great-grandmother.

Nearly a decade passes, during which Theroux's narrator continues to feel like "an alien in an aloha shirt." He remains blocked while guests come and go. Only his precocious daughter, Rose, and Leon Edel, biographer of Henry James, whom he meets on a club beach, seem to speak his language.

Theroux's sweet portrait of Edel is a counterweight to last year's bitter memoir, "Sir Vidia's Shadow," in which he skewered his former mentor V.S. Naipaul. It is not the only humanizing aspect of "Hotel Honolulu." In one of the funnier scenes, Theroux, often accused of superciliousness, has his alter-ego trounced and humiliated at Scrabble by his uneducated staff, who use Hawaiian colloquialisms of which he is ignorant.

Theroux is a sharp, unblinking storyteller with a taste for the scabrous and perverse. His narrator is a Gatsbyesque Nick Carraway figure reporting on the sadsacks at the Hotel Honolulu from the fringe. Although largely episodic and occasionally repetitive, the book's 80 short chapters are unified by two threads: the narrator's path back to his writing and the extravagant, lurching progress toward death of his boss, Buddy Hamstra. Theroux is indulgent toward this "big, blaspheming, doggy-eyed man in drooping shorts, ... most people's nightmare, a reckless millionaire with the values of a delinquent." Buddy is a man whose idea of a joke is to pretend to grind his second wife's ashes over guests' meals as pepper.

Other characters are equally sordid or sad. Not all of their stories resonate like that of the gossip columnist involved in a seamy, ill-fated triangle with her son and his bisexual lover, or the rich lawyer who is happy living alone tending his gardens and bees until he meets a young woman beyond his reach. But with "Hotel Honolulu," Theroux has written a morbidly fascinating handbook of alienation and a Baedeker of his fantasies and inner life.

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Heller McAlpin has reviewed books for Newsday, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor