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Hotel Honolulu: A Novel

Hotel Honolulu: A Novel

4.1 7
by Paul Theroux

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In this wickedly satiric romp, Paul Theroux captures the essence of Hawaii as it has never been depicted. The novel's narrator, a down-on-his-luck writer, escapes to Waikiki and soon finds himself the manager of the Hotel Honolulu, a low-rent establishment a few blocks off the beach. Honeymooners, vacationers, wanderers, mythomaniacs, soldiers, and families all


In this wickedly satiric romp, Paul Theroux captures the essence of Hawaii as it has never been depicted. The novel's narrator, a down-on-his-luck writer, escapes to Waikiki and soon finds himself the manager of the Hotel Honolulu, a low-rent establishment a few blocks off the beach. Honeymooners, vacationers, wanderers, mythomaniacs, soldiers, and families all check in to the hotel. Like the Canterbury pilgrims, every guest has come in search of something -- sun, love, happiness, objects of unnameable longing -- and everyone has a story. By turns hilarious, ribald, tender, and tragic, HOTEL HONOLULU offers a unique glimpse of the psychological landscape of an American paradise.

Editorial Reviews

Whether he is writing fiction or nonfiction, Paul Theroux's sense of place runs powerfully through the heart of all his works. In Hotel Honolulu, Theroux takes on the tourist culture of Hawaii -- a would-be paradise for wanderers, adulterers, and honeymooners alike. Having left behind a life in shambles, Buddy, a failed writer, is signed on as the manager of a hotel. But before he knows it, the hotel, its inhabitants, and their clandestine (and not-so-clandestine) goings-on occupy the whole of Buddy's universe -- driving him unknowingly toward the very truth about himself and America that had once eluded him in his art.
Place is crucial to both Theroux's penetrating travel books and his potent fiction. In his newest novel, an adroitly crafted work of vigorous description, complex pathos, and ironic humor, he captures the molten cultural, racial, and linguistic amalgam of Hawaii in a racy variation on the Grand Hotel template.
Heller McAlpin
In Hotel Honolulu, Theroux has written a morbidly fascinating handbook of alienation and a Baedeker of his fantasies and inner life.
Chrisitian Science Monitor
Seattle Times
a delightful, loose-limbed riff of a novel...full of Theroux's sharp wit, unashamed crankiness, pungent observations and surprising insights.
Philadelphia Inquirer
What makes Paul Theroux so good is what always separates the fine writers from the pack: his ability to look at the familiar in a fresh, original way - and make us richer for it.
New York Times Book Review
Theroux has established himself in the tradition of Conrad, or perhaps Somerset Maugham.
New York Times Review of Books
Theroux's stylistic brilliance...and his extraordinary ear make him one of the most impressive living American writers.
Portland Tribune
a cunningly assembled affair...'Hotel Honolulu' is Theroux at his diabolical best.
A cross between a novel and the fictional equivalent of a stamp album, this book is composed of countless brief, highly colored stories of love affairs and sexual encounters, dumb tricks, business deals, bright ideas, social climbing and falls from grace. As irresistible and unreliable as gossip, the stories bubble up from the eponymous hotel's guests and staff, from kitchen and guest suites and from the slightly seedy hotel bar, named Paradise Lost by the narrator and manager, who has the same name and history as the novelist himself. To further illustrate the back and forth of life and fiction, one of the resident guests, a retired cabinetmaker, is at work on a coffin like the ship's carpenter in Moby-Dick. Odder yet, the great James Joyce scholar Leon Edel turns up, courtly and erudite, having lunch with the fictional Paul Theroux, who is suffering a monumental writer's block. This is a foolish book that celebrates foolishness. It has no great point but to marvel at human variety, its squalor and its liveliness. In the end, one is reminded of a line by Southern writer Flannery O'Connor. She happened to be describing a stand of scrub trees in full sunlight, but her description applies equally well to Theroux's parade of humanity: "even the meanest of them shone."
—Penelope Mesic

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Scrappy, satiric and frowsily exotic, this loosely constructed novel of debauchery and frustrated ambition in present-day Hawaii debunks the myth of the island as a vacationer's paradise. The episodic narrative is presided over by two protagonists: the unnamed narrator, a has-been writer who leaves the mainland to manage the seedy Hotel Honolulu, and raucous millionaire Buddy Hamstra, the hotel's owner and former manager, who fired himself to give the narrator his job. The narrator is at once amused and moved by Buddy, "a big, blaspheming, doggy-eyed man in drooping shorts," who is as reckless in his personal life as he is in his business dealings. He hires the writer despite his lack of qualifications, and the writer returns the favor in loyalty and affection, acting as witness to Buddy's flamboyant decline. As the hotel's manager, the writer comes to know a succession of downtrodden travelers and Hawaii residents, each more eccentric than the next. Typical are a wealthy lawyer whose amassed fortune does not bring him happiness; a past-her-prime gossip columnist involved in a love triangle with her bisexual son and her son's male lover; and a man who is obsessed with a woman he meets through the personals. Theroux, never one to tread lightly, often portrays native Hawaiians including the writer's wife as simpleminded, craven souls. But he is an equal-opportunity satirist, skewering all his characters except perhaps his alter-ego narrator and Leon Edel, the real-life biographer of Henry James, who makes an extended, unlikely cameo appearance. The lack of conventional plot and the dreariness of life at Hotel Honolulu make the narrative drag at times, but Theroux's ear and eye are as sharp as ever, his prose as clean and supple. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Every guest at this hotel has a story, and we get to hear them all including that of the new manager, a down-on-his-luck kind of guy whose life is taken over by his job. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"We're multistory," explains Buddy Hamstra, owner of the Hotel Honolulu, describing in a word not only the setting but the narrative structure of Theroux's tale of a burned-out, middle-aged writer seeking salvation at the edge of paradise. In the frame tale, profane, effusive Buddy, as pleased to be able to say that his manager wrote a book as he is to retire to his mansion, drink recklessly, and screw his masseuse, hires the nameless narrator to run his down-at- heels hotel. The manager, meantime, seduces Sweetie, daughter of the hotel's resident prostitute, Puamana Wilson, who bore Ku‘uipo—Hawaiian for "sweetheart"—27 years ago after a brief encounter with a mainlander reputed to be JFK. When Sweetie gets pregnant, the manager marries her. (Condoms seem unknown in fecund Hawaii, where couples routinely engage in unprotected sex until they produce exactly one child.) Leaving the management of the hotel to his capable staff, he then settles down contentedly with his pretty, semiliterate wife and his precocious daughter Rose to watch his guests, whose stories burst forth like seeds from an overripe papaya. We meet Hobart Flail, eternal pessimist, whose doomsaying keeps ringing true; poisonous Madam Ma, whose flagrant attention-seeking takes a fatal turn; Jasmine the hooker, whose men pay her to leave; and socialite Mrs. Bunny Arkle, whose men pay her to stay. Eight-year-old Rose sagely reminds us that, while all happy stories are the same, unhappy stories are all different. So death is a frequent theme, as is incest—Puamana is raped by her father, Buddy's wife Pinky by her uncle, and Mahina, an adopted daughter in search of her real father, is inevitably molested by him.What to make, then, of the narrator's paternal fascination with Rose? If you can get past the false modesty of the narrator, whose allusions to his discarded fame only make him sound smug, there's wonder on every floor of the Hotel Honolulu.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.08(d)

Read an Excerpt


Paradise Lost

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 rats.

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 guest rooms."

"That's not good," I said.

"And this week he stepped on his dick."

"Not good at all."

"He needs therapy," 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 experience?"

"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, too."

"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 dick."

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 those things.

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."

"I'll try."

"It's not rocket surgery," Buddy said. "And you've got the basic qualification."

"What's that?"

"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."

Copyright © 2001 by Paul Theroux

Meet the Author

PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and Cape Cod.

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Hotel Honolulu 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sarah_in_USA More than 1 year ago
Strong writing, this multi-story hotel is also a multi-story book. One cannot help but getting to like the characters, even the darkest ones as Mrs. Ma, for instance. Each chapter (or sometimes a couple of them) read as short stories, but at the same time they are all linked, connected together by the narrator who works as the hotel manager. Are writers in self exile in Hawaii the equivalent of James and Wharton, another bunch of self-exiles in Europe this time? It is a question I asked myself while reading the book. There is a lot of humor as well, at times almost slapstick humor. It makes for burlesque and baroque touches in the book, and good laugh.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Story after story of middle aged to older men and their 'oriental girl' fantasies - or actualities...Buddy's life is a bore - the newspaper maven more interesting - the Hotel comings and goings in general (whose manager is PT's alter ego/self lives his own 'oriental girl' fantasy) are interesting...but could have been streamlined by about 100 pages. Some of the vignettes are brilliant and moving...some others...yawn....
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was subtle and brilliant. I enjoyed it so much but didn't love Buddy as much as everyone else did. Pinky was the most interesting character for her horrible life and how she turned out, manipulator and victim. I am starting to really think Paul Theroux is a genius.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Few capture the essence of a setting as sensitively as author Paul Theroux. One remembers with pleasure 'Kowloon Tong' (1997), a vivid word portrait of China. Once more he renders unforgettable scenes in his latest work, 'Hotel Honolulu,' set in Hawaii where, by the way, Mr. Theroux maintains a second home. But this is not the sun dappled island paradise of which many dream. It is instead a rather seedy spot, a down-at-the-heels 80 room hotel on an unimposing byway several blocks from the beach in Waikiki. 'The rooms were small, the elevator was narrow, the lobby was tiny, the bar was just a nook.' The owner, Buddy Hamstra, a man with protean appetites, bridled at calling his place small. It was, he said, 'Yerpeen.' Resident manager for this haven is an unsuccessful writer who has no hotel experience, but a sharp eye for observing and facile tongue for relating the human dramas that unfold behind closed doors. Readers will find themselves drawn to the off-beat, flawed characters who visit the hotel, and reminded that Mr. Theroux is not only a trenchant observer of humankind but one blessed with limitless imagination and a powerful sense of place.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Theroux, the ironist who never explains his joke, the prankster with the straight face, is at heart a master craftsman writing as well as he ever writes--which is very well. The sentences are wonderful, as usual, little gems to be collected and admired after the book is finished. Theroux has a sharp eye, and an even sharper ear. He renders pop surf culture and third world prostitution with the same nible agilty and control. There something for everyone in HH. In the book, he revists the theme of trancendence though the act of creation. For Theroux, and possibly the reader, the creative act is a means of salvation, if only for the moment.