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Paul Theroux's Latest Book Explores Surfing As A Metaphor For Life


Paul Theroux's new novel throws a 60-plus-year-old surfing legend, Joe Sharkey - and isn't that a great surfing name, by the way? Joe Sharkey - who's beginning to feel his legend dim, smack into the big waves of guilt, regret and confusion after he accidentally but drunkenly runs over a homeless man with his car in the rain. Joe Sharkey goes on with his life, but he can't quite shake the unknown life that was left behind on a rainy road. Paul Theroux's new novel is "Under The Wave At Waimea." And the acclaimed and honored writer of "The Mosquito Coast," "Saint Jack" and dozens of other books joins us from Honolulu. Thank you so much for being with us.

PAUL THEROUX: Great to be here, Scott, and aloha.

SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, all right. Rub it in, why don't you? You're in Hawaii. What kind of an emotional tug is there between a 62-year-old surfing legend and an 80-year-old literary legend?

THEROUX: A lot, actually. In some ways, this barely literate surfer is one of my most autobiographical books because I can completely relate and many people can relate to surfing. We all have a wave in our life. We have more than one wave - unemployment, divorce, hard times. That's a wave. And you learn to surf that wave to shore. Sharkey also needs to understand Hawaii. I've lived here 30 years. I live on the North Shore among surfers, and I need to understand the culture. Also, Sharkey is a racial minority in Hawaii, and he had to earn his right to be on the wave. And I think that in another respect, he's old. He finds younger surfers nipping at his heels, and as an older writer, you know, people are always saying, hey, have you read the hot new writer? There's this hot - so the hot new writer's like the hot new surfer. So I feel that, too.

SIMON: Your descriptions of surfing are just stunning. At one point, you call it something like a fabulous death and then the distant sound of the surf, now a chug-chugging, now a suck-squeeze and a drenching crash. I'm just going to guess, though, when the sun comes up, you don't run out to surf, but you run to your laptop.

THEROUX: No, I don't run to a - I don't write on a laptop. I write in longhand on white lined paper. And I don't run to surf, but I have an outrigger canoe, and I was paddling yesterday with three Hawaiian guys. Hawaii is not just its islands. It's also its water. You were here, so you know that. And you - I understand you were once on a board.

SIMON: Yes, we did a story on Brian Keaulana, one of the great surfers. And I - you know, with his help, I got up on a board, yes.

THEROUX: And when you were on the wave, when you were offshore - you might have been 50 or 100 yards offshore - you looked at the island, and you got a view of the island that people on the roads don't get.

SIMON: That's true.

THEROUX: When you're at sea, you see it. Also, you were at a break. Whatever wave you were on had a name. Every wave in Hawaii has a name. So the water is part of the whole ecosystem. The archipelago is both land and water.

SIMON: What set Sharkey and Olive on a search for the man that he - Olive insists that he say killed. Even though it was inadvertent and even though he was drunk, Olive doesn't let him off with any easy euphemisms. What sends them in search of his life?

THEROUX: It's not a novel about surfing. It's really a novel about a surfer. Sharkey - after he kills the man, he says, I hit a drunk homeless guy. And bad things start happening in his life, and he can't explain them. So the first third of the book is Sharkey's going downhill until he's in a body that's scarcely inhabited by a human being. And his lover, Olive, says, you have to get a grip on yourself. You have to - who was this man? Who was this man that we killed? It's not karma. It's not a curse. It's just this feeling within him that something has happened, and he has no control over it. Yeah.

SIMON: Hunter Thompson makes a full appearance. He and Sharkey turn out to be - insofar as Hunter was friends with anyone, he's friends with Sharkey. At least, they were companions for a while. What are your personal rules for putting historical figures into novels?

THEROUX: I think fair game. I like the idea when real people suddenly turn up in novels, if they - you know, with permission. And I knew Hunter. He came here every year. He loved Hawaii. And he was a troubled soul, too. I mean, he used to say, you know, it's a full-time job to be an addict. He loved watching surfing. He never swam himself. But he came here once a year, and I saw him, and my experiences with him, I've given to Sharkey, even to the point where Hunter once said to me, we should give a course. We go to University of Hawaii. We could give a course together, corrupt young minds. He says that to Sharkey, and Sharkey says, well, what would I do? I mean, Sharkey doesn't even know who he is. He's never read a book. But Hunter got to the point here where he asked me to write his column for ESPN. I mean, he was just incapable of doing it.

SIMON: Yeah.

THEROUX: And I put that in the book where he says to Sharkey, maybe you can write my column. Sharkey says, I'm a high school dropout. How could I do that? And Hunter says, it'll be raw. It'll be great. You're just the man to do it.

SIMON: Yeah, an authentic voice. Is there something that we can learn from surfing or life on the waves, in water, even if we never come closer to it than a bathtub?

THEROUX: There's a lot to learn. A wave is a place. It's less a sport then a life choice. It's a culture. The surfers here - they might fix your roof. They might do a little bit of plumbing. But when the surf's up, they're on the waves, so it's a total commitment to doing something. And people can surf into their 70s, into their 80s. I mean, there are elderly surfers who are doing it very, very well. So out on the wave, you might see an old man. You might see me. Not me on a - I might be surfing my canoe on the wave. But the wave does not respect you. You respect the wave. The wave is neutral. It's not going to, you know - it's not an angry thing. It's just a force of nature. That's helpful to anyone who gets in the water.

SIMON: Paul Theroux, his novel, "Under The Wave At Waimea," thank you so much for being with us.

THEROUX: Scott, it's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUN METAL GREY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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