News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

More old stuff from the old website. This second review was scrabbled down on 2003-05-15
Hatchet-Job: A Review of Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu

Hotel Honolulu is a first-rate hatchet job poking fun at, amongst other things, the sub-literate. It’s neither provocative nor pregnant with meaning and unless you’re a writer, or a writer in training wheels like myself, it’s unlikely to change much in your life. But what this book does do is give great pleasure through its quirkily detailed, fast-paced, keenly observant narrative that feels so very much like non-fiction. Most importantly, like the best of non-fiction, it doesn’t waste your time. It's that rare novel from which you can actually learn something useful about your fellow man and not feel that you might as well have been watching the videot box for all that sticks to the brainpan the day after. Perhaps the other major reason I like this book is that it's authoritative and witty, i.e. frankly elitist and unabashedly sadistic. Books written by authors who fall over themselves to be fair to their subject matter are usually dull and full of platitudes. Such authors are often too polite to become more than half-versed in the human aspect of their subject matter and are unwilling to take risks in print for fear of offending. Fairness of course, has its place: the court-room, the formalism of binding arbitration, or moony Hollywood productions. Surely there are better traits for the ambitious writer such as a willingness to employ sharp words and ask uncomfortable questions when appropriate, and integrity sufficient to refuse to cut corners and to refuse to please the customers willy-nilly to the detriment of the material.

Unlike Paul Hessler's River Town, which is conflict-averse, Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu is pro-conflict. It sets up chapter after chapter of combat and then lets the games begin. Like Mark Twain, he has a perverse love of creating absurd situations and then letting his imagination and knowledge of human nature serve as engine and fuel to animate them. Paul Theroux creates a number of odd characters but, because he's understated, i.e. not trying too hard, and well experienced in character portrayal, his characters really work. They are memorable because they are all individuals with specific mannerisms, weaknesses, follies, physiognomies, tastes in apparel, personal histories, and so forth. And, they are memorable because the characters are not worked to exhaustion. They last several chapters, flickering and shining into three full dimensions and then fizzle out in a pop! to conveniently disappear forever.
If only real life was so convenient. On second thought, I suppose it can be. I was a great fan of hostels when I was younger. You could observe the lives of strangers taking place before you: their fights with the landlord, their employers, their girlfriends. Everything was in public, no secrets, no pretence. And you never even had to befriend them, humor them, or even talk to them. You could peer deeply into the lives of people you’d never wish to spend five minutes with if it required the effort of cultivating friendship. A pleasure indeed.

Perhaps it’s a sign of my own shallow knowledge of people, but Theroux’s people came across to me as being very lifelike and almost consistently in character. Part of the reason for this is probably cynical. Theroux perhaps correctly recognizes his limitations and so designed this novel to play to his forte, which is character construction and assassination. He sedulously avoids his greatest weakness which is lengthy plot development.

Below is an example of what I’m referring to in all of the above. This is from the chapter, "The Limping Waiters." The story revolves around two waiters, each of whom has one leg shorter than the other.

She suddenly got up, went to the window, and peered through the blinds, turning her back on him. If she heard the door open and shut she did not show it.
Holding the Gideon Bible, Fishlow came bobbing and swaying behind her, hiked up her happi coat, moved her feet wider part, and as she canted forward to receive him, Fishlow chucked the Bible to the floor, placed his foot on it to brace his short leg, and the thus braced, he entered, lifting her. Then she reacted, as though lifted onto a peg.

'No! No!' she cried out, which terrified him. He stopped, fearing that her plea might carry even through the closed window. But in a softer voice she implored him to continue. All the while, she remained turned away from him, said nothing more, did not appear to see him balancing on one leg to hoist his pants before peddling out of the room, stride-hop, stride-hop.

What could be more irreverent to religion, disrespectful of the handicapped, and sneeringly dismissive of those capable of only clumsy encounters than “Fishlow chucked the bible to the floor, etc.” And yet it slides down the throat and massages like a rich curry. He manages to tweak the mood in the direction of humor, while portraying the scene convincingly and deviously in a manner that suggests detachment, thereby muffling the alarm bells of the guilty conscience. Outstanding!

The book also features a murder carried out by the cross-dressing bisexual son of the same son's married bisexual lover when the first finds out that his role as sex toy to his mom has been taken over by his lover. Again very improbable, even if true to life. But because Paul Theroux does not focus upon moral dilemmas, and instead lightly mocks his people or lends the suggestion that they had whatever coming to them, he never gets bogged down. He reinforces tendencies and suspicions that we all have on vengeful days when we’ve been wronged or feel fed up with yet another shyster play for sympathy. Sod the bastards! we silently wish. Theroux grants it.

His chapters are also spiced up with a naturally fumbling colloquial diction that does far more to breathe the life of recognizable stereotypes into his people than would lengthy description. Every page has characters mangling and slurring English. Hawaii becomes ‘Whyee’, kids becomes ‘keeds’, frustrating becomes ‘falustrating’, What’s the matter with you brother? becomes ‘Assa madda you, brah?’ Or, the opposite occurs, for example when Puamana a prostitute is talking to the narrator:

‘Men are less threatened by me – they’ve kind of vouchsafed that,’ she said.
I stared, not at her but at the word.

After all, lengthy description has been worked to death by masters of the English language since Chaucer’s time, whereas colloquialisms are freshly churned out with each generation. Not to mention that truth really is stranger than fiction. Theroux’s selections of dialogue verbiage sound very true to life. And when you come across this on every page, it reminds you of just how little imagination goes into the average novel, work of history, and so forth.

It’s worth repeating that Paul Theroux operates as a conscious sadist. In all forms of humor, someone has to win and someone has to lose. So perhaps we can agree that slapstick is reducible to physical abuse, humor to mental cruelty, and that wit is a kind of sadism put on a leash. Given that Paul Theroux clearly has no problem with being brutal in what ever manner pleases him, he is able to bring his many years of experience trashing people up and down the food chain to bear upon the subject matter. And not the full brunt of his wrath, but just the right touch of devilishness to bring out your smile and not a frown.

In Peter Hessler's River Town, there's very little by way of humor because the author cannot bring himself to look down upon the people he's living and working with and educating. He acts responsibly and has a martinet of a social conscience, plus a keen desire to be a combination Good Samaritan and Johnny Appleseed. Perhaps this has something to do with being a member of the Peace Corps, or is reflected by his decision to join the Peace Corps. On second thought, Paul Theroux was formerly a member of the Peace Corps, so perhaps this has nothing to do with it.
Either way, Peter Hessler wishes to relate to the people he's with, wishes to immerse himself in their culture and the civilization, their habits and their mores. And of course it is part and parcel of the current politically correct scheme that one respects any and all cultures, especially those abroad and not yet well understood.
This ideology aims to achieve good ends, and I imagine that it does often achieve them. But I also imagine that this ideology is better suited to people incapable of thinking for themselves for such reasons as youth and inexperience or because they’re incapable of or prefer not to think for themselves. If one's aim is to tame the antisocial tendencies of rednecks and gangbangers, then educating them with the notion that they should respect other cultures is a great idea. Otherwise, they’re not likely to figure how to deal with other cultures appropriately until after they’ve committed an act of vandalism.
However, for the rest of us, I would beg for greater tolerance of dissenting opinion. Paul Theroux’s Hotel Honolulu is a fine example of worthy dissent: the opinion that life is not fair and that it is in fact full of random and meaningless events that are often best met with a good laugh for starters. On the other hand, because he has so skillfully understated a variety of dissenting opinions, most of us are unaware that he even presents any in the book. For what it’s worth, it didn’t occur to me either for quite a while.

In sum, unembarrassed by cruelty, craft or dishonesty when dealing with people, Paul Theroux is able to choose from, and reproduce in his work, 100% of the human condition, as it perhaps exists in second-rate Whyee hotels. If he was a scrupulous and moral person, or at least posed as one on paper, then there would be many aspects of human nature and behavior that he would not allow himself to write about for fear that this would suggest that he was less than scrupulous and moral in his private life. Fortunately, he’s too smart for that, and so he can investigate, immerse himself within, partake of, and portray lying, whoring, hypocrisy, and so forth in a frank and natural way. This is part of the real charm of the book. It allows him to illustrate full body characters and allows him to show folly and cruelty in a natural and almost innocent light because he’s not moralizing. In so doing, though he often writes about what most people would consider quite negative aspects of human nature, there is no dark feel to his book at all. He operates under no moral scheme, so has no desire to poke an angry finger in the direction of transgressors of society’s moral and ethical laws. Thus the book is free from heavy handedness and is indeed just a delightful light read.

Biff Cappuccino

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