Newly married and having recently taken over the management of a hotel in Honolulu, a former writer is drawn into the chaotic lives of his guests and into the distinctive customs and rhythms of the distant island. As witness to the many contrasting, and often ribald, chronicles of the hotel's characters, he ultimately finds personal salvation through returning to writing once again. The result is this novel in eighty distinct episodes, a Chaucerian sequence of strange pilgrims and just-as-strange islanders confronting each other, and their fate, in the rooms of the seedy hotel.
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Paul Theroux was born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1941. His novels include Waldo, Picture Palace, the Mosquito Coast and Kowloon Tong. Paul Theroux has also published numerous travel books, including the Old Patagonia Express.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Nothing to me is so erotic as a hotel room, and therefore so
penetrated with life and death. Buddy Hamstra offered me a hotel job
in Honolulu and laughed at my accepting it so quickly. I had been
trying to begin a new life, as people do when they flee to distant
places. Hawaii was paradise with heavy traffic. I met Sweetie in the
hotel, where she was also working. One day when we were alone on the
fourth floor I asked, "Do you want to make love?" and she said, "Part
of me does." Why smile? At last we did it, then often, and always in
the same vacant guest room, 409. Sweetie got pregnant, our daughter
was born. So, within a year of arriving, I had my new life, and as
the writer said after the crack-up, I found new things to care about.
I was resident manager of the Hotel Honolulu, eighty rooms nibbled by
Buddy, the hotel"s owner, said, "We"re multistory."
I liked the word and the way he made it multi-eye.
The rooms were small, the elevator was narrow, the lobby was
tiny, the bar was just a nook.
"Not small," Buddy said. "Yerpeen."
I had gotten to these green mute islands, 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. A
friend of mine recommended me to Buddy Hamstra. I applied for this
job. It wasn"t for material; it was the money. I needed work.
"My manager"s a typical local howlie — a reetard," Buddy
said. "Fondles the help. Always cockroaching booze. Sniffs around the
"That"s not good," I said.
"And this week he stepped on his dick."
"Not good at all."
"He needs therrpy," Buddy said. "He"s got lots of baggage."
"Maybe that"s what he likes about the hotel — that he has a
place to put it."
Buddy sucked his teeth and said, "That"s kind of funny."
The idea of rented bedrooms attracted me. Shared by so many
dreaming strangers, every room was vibrant with their secrets, like
furious dust in a sunbeam, their night sweats, the stammering echoes
of their voices and horizontal fantasies; and certain ambiguous
odors, the left-behind atoms and the residue of all the people who
had ever stayed in it. The hotel bedroom is more than a symbol of
intimacy; it is intimacy"s very shrine, scattered with the essential
paraphernalia and familiar fetish objects of its rituals. Assigning
people to such rooms, I believed I was able to influence their lives.
Buddy Hamstra was a big, blaspheming, doggy-eyed man in
drooping shorts, a wheezy smoker and heavy drinker. His nickname
was "Tuna." He was most people"s nightmare, a reckless millionaire
with the values of a delinquent and a barklike laugh. He liked
saying, "I"m a crude sumbitch." He was from the mainland —
Sweetwater, Nevada. But he pretended to be worse than he was. He had
the sort of devilish gaze that showed a mind in motion.
"What"s yours, drink or weed?"
We had met in his hotel bar. He had a cocktail in one hand
and a cigarette in the other.
"I got some killer buds," he said.
"Beer for me."
We talked idly — about his tattoos, a forthcoming eclipse of
the sun, the price of gas, and the source of the weed he was smoking —
before he got down to business, and he asked suddenly, "Any hotel
"I"ve stayed in a lot of hotels."
He laughed in his barking way. And then, out of breath from
the laughter, he went slack-jawed and gasped blue smoke. Finally he
recovered and said, "Hey, I"ve known a lot of assholes, but that
doesn"t make me a proctologist."
I admitted that I had no experience running a hotel, that I
was a writer — had been a writer. Every enterprise I had run, I had
run in my head. I hated telling him that. I mentioned some of my
books, because he asked, but nothing registered. That pleased me. I
did not want to have a past.
"You"re probably great at thinking up names," he said. "Being
as you"re a writer."
"That"s part of the job."
"Part of the hotel business, too. Naming your restaurants,
your lounges, your function rooms. Naming the bar."
His mention of the bar made me look up and see that we were
sitting in Momi"s Paradise Lounge.
Buddy drank, held the booze in his mouth, frowned, then
swallowed and said, "The manager here is a complete bozo. Dangerous,
"In what way dangerous?"
"Has an argument with a guest, right? The guest storms out.
When he comes back he finds that the manager has bricked up his
doorway, sealed the whole room off. What he was saying was, it"s the
guest"s room but it"s our doorway."
I tried to imagine a guest opening the door and seeing fresh
bricks where there should have been an opening.
"Another guest — a real pain, granted — this manager put some
goldfish in his toilet so he couldn"t use it, but the guest flushed
it, and so the manager filled the whole bathroom with industrial
foam." Buddy sipped his drink, looking thoughtful. "Someone asked
him, "What"s your problem?" The manager says, "Masturbation takes
points off your IQ each time. Hey, I could have been a genius.""
At that moment Buddy"s mobile phone rang. He answered it and
handed me his business card and whispered for me to visit him the
next day at his house on the North Shore. Then he exploded into the
phone. Hearing him hollering at someone else, I realized how polite
he had been with me.
Buddy was watching an inaudible television when I found him the next
day. Because he was supine and less animated, he looked more
debauched. He lay in a hammock on a porch of his house, a large
square building with porches like pulled-out bureau drawers, standing
among rattling palm trees at the edge of Sunset Beach and the
toppling, sliding waves. The sound of surf overwhelmed the sound of
the television program he was watching. The women in bathing suits on
the TV were not half as attractive as the ones on the beach below
where he lay.
"This lolo manager," he said, rolling his eyes, continuing
where we had left off. "I"ll give you another example. He sees a very
pretty guest and introduces himself. He accompanies her to her room,
they admire the view from her lanai, and he says, "Excuse me." He
goes into her john and takes a big loud leak." Buddy shook his head
with disapproval. "The woman is so spooked she moves out."
As I listened, I watched a rat moving smoothly along the
baseboard of Buddy"s big house like a blown leaf.
"He"s got a professional massage table in one room. He offers
massages to women. Now and then he goes a little too far. Some like
it, others don"t. There are complaints."
"He"s a qualified masseur?"
"He"s a three-balled tomcat. Like I said, he stepped on his
I laughed in spite of myself, and Buddy joined me, barking.
This second time I saw Buddy, he seemed more devilish. Watching him
swinging in his hammock, like a big fish in a net, I was reminded of
his nickname. Holding a glass of vodka on the dome of his belly,
Buddy listed the manager"s lapses. The man drank and disgraced
himself. The man dipped into the cash register. The man insulted
guests, sometimes using abusive language. He had been discovered
sleeping in his office. He had a weakness for giving deals to guests
who had done him favors, which was why the hotel had several long-
term residents who could not be dislodged. He took pleasure in
misleading people, and rubbed his hands when they went astray.
"This week he got into a world of shit," Buddy said. "He had
a little flirtation with one of the guests. She"s a fox but she"s
married — she"s on vacation here with her husband. After this dipshit
manager made love to her she passed out, and he shaved off her pubic
hair. She had to explain that to her old man!" Buddy clucked, looked
closely at me, and said, "What do you think?"
I laughed so hard at this weird outrage I could not reply.
But I was also embarrassed. In the world I had left, people didn"t do
Buddy said, "A person"s laugh says an awful lot."
That made me self-conscious, so I said, "He sounds pretty
colorful. But I don"t know whether I"d want him to run my business."
"You said writers are good at thinking up names," Buddy
said. "We need a new name for the bar."
""Momi"s Paradise Lounge" isn"t bad."
"Except that Momi is my ex-wife. She used to tend bar. We
just got divorced. My new wahine, Stella, hates the name. So?"
He raised himself up in the hammock to face me. And I tried
to think through all these distractions — the TV, the dumping waves,
the women in bikinis lying on the beach, the scuttling rat.
"What about calling it "Paradise Lost"?"
Buddy said nothing. He became very still, but his mind was in
motion. I was aware of a straining sound, like the grunt of a
laboring motor. Later I grew to recognize this as his way of thinking
hard, his brain whirring like an old machine, cocked with a
mainspring and the murmuring movement of its works coming out of his
mouth. At last, in a whisper, he said, "It"s the name of . . . what?
Some song? Some story?"
"Poem. I like it."
And he relaxed. I stopped hearing the mechanism of slipping
belts and uncoiling springs and meshing cogs from his damp forehead.
"You"ll do fine."
So I had the job. Was it because I was a writer? Buddy didn"t
read, which made the printed word seem like magic to him and perhaps
gave him an exaggerated respect for writers. He was a gambler, and I
was one of his gambles. He was one of the last of a dying breed, a
rascal in the Pacific. His hiring me was another example of the sort
of audacious risk he boasted about.
"The staff is great," he said. "They"ll do your job for you,
and the rest is oh-jay-tee. But I need someone who looks like he
knows what he"s doing."
"It"s not rocket surgery," Buddy said. "And you"ve got the
"Reason being, you"re a mainland howlie." He laughed and
hitched himself tighter in his hammock and sent me on my way.
The word "mainland," spoken in Hawaii, sounded to me
like "Planet Earth."
Whenever I felt superfluous, which was an old intimation, I reminded
myself that I was running a multistory hotel. People in Hawaii asked
me what I did for a living. I never said, "I"m a writer" — they would
not have known my books — but rather, "I run the Hotel Honolulu."
That gave me a life and, among the rascals, a certain status.
After thirty years of moving around the world, and thirty
years of books, I was hired because I was a white man, a haole. I had
made and lost several — not fortunes but livings; lost houses, lost
land, lost family, lost friends; goodbye to cars, to my library.
Other people were now sitting in lovely chairs I had bought and
looking at paintings I used to own, hung on walls I had paid for.
I had never had a backup plan. My idea was to keep moving.
Hawaii seemed a good place for starting over. This hotel was ideal.
Buddy understood. He looked to be the sort of man who had also lost a
lot in his life — wives, houses, money, land; not books. I needed a
rest from everything imaginary, and I felt that in settling in
Hawaii, and not writing, I was returning to the world.
We were not on the beach. We were the last small, old hotel
in Honolulu. "It"s kind of a bowteek hotel," Buddy said. He had won
the place on a bet in the early sixties, when the jets had begun to
replace the cruise ships. The hotel was a relic even then. What with
the rising price of land in Waikiki, we were sure to be bought as a
tear-down and replaced by a big ugly building, one of the chains.
When I considered our certain doom, my memory was sharpened. I
remembered what I saw and heard, every fugitive detail, and became a
man on whom nothing was wasted.
There were residents, and some people who stayed for the
winter, but most of the guests were strangers. By the time they
checked out, I knew them as well as I wanted to, and in some cases I
knew them very well.
"This the winner!" Keola, the janitor, said on my first day,
welcoming me to the hotel. Dees da weena! But there was not much for
me to do. Buddy had been right about the staff"s running the place.
Peewee was the chef, Lester Chen my number two. Tran and Trey were
barmen. Tran was a Vietnamese immigrant. Trey, a surfer from Maui,
also had a rock band, called Sub-Dude, formerly known as Meat Jelly,
until all the band members found Jesus. "Jesus was the first surfer,
man. He walked on water," Trey told me, more than once. "I surf for
Christ." Charlie Wilnice and Ben Fishlow were our seasonal waiters.
Keola and Kawika did the grunt work. I liked them for being
incurious. Sweetie was for a time head of Housekeeping. She had been
raised in the hotel, by her mother, Puamana, another of Buddy"s
"In a small hotel you see people at their best and at their
worst," Peewee said. "As for this one, we"re in the islands, right,
but this is where America stays. And some people come here to die."
We were too cheap for Japan, too expensive for Australia, too
far for Europe, had little to offer the New Zealander, and didn"t
cater to backpackers. The business traveler avoided us, except when
he was with a prostitute. Now and then we got Canadians. They were
courteous and tried not to boast. They were budget-conscious. Another
characteristic of frugal people: no jokes, or else bad jokes.
Canadian guests despised us for not knowing their geography, while at
the same time being embarrassed about their huge empty spaces that
had funny place names. In conversation, Canadians were also the first
to point out that they were different, usually by saying, "Well, I
wouldn"t know, I"m a Canadian." We had a Mexican family once. We
couldn"t be called child-friendly, but Peewee was correct: America
walked through our doors.
People talked. I listened. I observed. I read a little. My
guests were naked. I sometimes trespassed, and it became my life —
the whole of my life, a new life in which I learned things I had
never known before.
"I had plaque cleared from my carotid artery," Clarence Greer
told me. A hotel manager in Hawaii hears lots of medical reports, as
well as weather reports from back home. The Scheesers were from
International Falls, where the temperature that day was minus-twenty.
Jirleen Cofield explained to me the making of a
po-boy sandwich. I got Wanda Privett"s recipe for meatloaf, and other
recipes, and learned that many of them, being from middle America,
involved adding a can of soup. It worried me to see a man wearing a
toupee. I trusted people who lisped. Your diabetic needs to be
careful of infections in his feet. I was overprotective of African
Americans, always saw them as having among the oldest American
pedigrees. I tried to understand the sadness of soldiers, the
melancholy of the military. Was it the uniform? Was it the haircut? I
heard so many stories that I abandoned any thought of writing them;
their very number gave me writer"s block and made me patient. Now and
then, on the day he was to leave, a guest might walk the two blocks
to the beach and sob in the sunshine.
I liked Hawaii because it was a v...
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