But this excess of detail is symptomatic of Theroux’s approach. It’s reminiscent of James Salter, an omniscient plenipotentiary of his own fictional world, dispensing information liberally (like Salter, he has a weakness for tales of men battling themselves, and for queasy sex scenes: “he sank to sleep after that … wrung out by the convulsive lovemaking”). So we’re told repeatedly that Joe’s ageing makes him a “bystander”, a “stranger”, “a wraith among the pretty girls and golden boys”. And sometimes the details are doubtful anyway, as when Joe’s girlfriend, a thirtysomething Englishwoman, says things like “mustn’t grumble”, “oik”, “goolies” or “flaming bloody bore”. Cor blimey, what a bleedin’ carry on! Can you tell Theroux last lived in England in 1990?
But his facility keeps the pages turning, especially when Joe finds out more and more about the man he killed, and has to deal with native Hawaiian distrust of white “haoles” (incomers) like him. Under the Wave at Waimea asks where we should measure a life from: its high point or its end point? And it works best if you don’t sweat the details too much and just let its wave sweep over you.
While Theroux’s latest novel is hardly his finest work, the way in which he captures the heady, claustrophobic island atmosphere and the thrill of riding a booming “muscle of water” continues to keep it afloat.