ETWEEN THE WINESTheroux's strangers in paradise"Nothing to me is so erotic as a hotel room, and therefore so penetrated with life and death." Thus begins Paul Theroux's latest volume of autobiography-as-novel, Hotel Honolulu. The first sentence should serve as either appetizer or warning. This is a brilliantly written book, beautifully imagined, a detached and sometimes chilling exercise in which the first-person narrator, an author who says he has lost his will to write, tries to regain that will by retreating to a seedy hotel in Waikiki. But the salvation he claims to have found at book's end comes with no emotional expenditure on his part.
That the book's title echoes Grand Hotel is no accident, of course; the "plot" is primarily a series of character vignettes that only occasionally intersect, though they often shine a cold glitter of inference on one another. Most are keenly observed portraits of the tourists, natives, exiles, escapees and cons the narrator meets through his job as the motel manager. The narrator himself is just such an exile, a man in his 50s who, after "thirty years of moving around the world, and thirty years of books," is again on the run from failed relationships of various types. (This may sound familiar to those aware of Theroux's own acrimonious tendencies.) "I needed a rest from everything imaginary," the narrator says, "and I felt that in settling in Hawaii, and not writing, I was returning to the world." Yet this prodigal admirer of Somerset Maugham cannot help but flee to a place of bloated fecundity and constant decay. It's that over-ripeness of the tropics, the heavy scent of flowers, the quick frailty, the vast and pervasive corruption of the motel and its cast that the narrator settles into. Through his job, he meets people who sell themselves and one another, commit murder and mayhem, lie about their ages and sexual proclivities, drink, stink and commit suicide. Theroux is fascinated with these characters, and he makes them fascinating to the reader.
Accustomed to tossing off accounts of people in faraway places, the narrator finds that, this time around, he is the curiosity, "hired because I was a white man, a haole." Nevertheless, his underlying self-assurance comes through; his precocious and acute daughter is not only his great pride, but seems to have emerged Athena-like from his mind alone, with no help from his native-born and somewhat simple wife. (The narrator's mother-in-law is a prostitute, a profession Theroux never tires of; and in one of the oddest macho fantasies in the book, the narrator's wife is the result of a tryst with JFK.)You might say the narrator takes Noel Coward's way out of the situation, opening every snapshot with an epigrammatic sleight of hand. "One morning at first light, quite by chance, she entered the hotel's coffee shop in a tight tube dress that rode up her thighs from the heel-and-toe motion of her wicked shoes." (This being the former novice nun whose ecstatic visions had been not of God but of her incestuous father.)Again, Theroux's opening remarks in the book serve as both lure and warning. The happenings at the hotel are by turns raunchy, grisly and hilarious. While the narrator makes lots of allowances for himself, pretending that his passivity is a sort of free pass, he trains an unyielding eye on the other inhabitants of this tawdry part of paradise. As Theroux has demonstrated before, in more than 30 books, there are few writers who can lure the reader into more unlovely compliance with his view of the world.
The ideal pairing: tropical setting and a fine SauterneSuch baroque and floral ruination does bring one unadulterated pleasure to mind: the honeyed, rose-gold and pear-scented Barosssa Botrytis Semillon Sauternes from Peter Lehmann. Like Theroux's Hawaii (and the decaying honey plantation he lives on), these wines are made from late-harvested grapes intentionally gone to high sugar and the "noble rot" that produces true Sauternes. With a clean, cidery nose, a whisper of almond and the slimmest, most elegant chiffon of citrus, these wines are perfect at the outset with foie gras or fine olives (not the bland martini ones, the real things) or at the end with cheese. It's sold in half bottles; the 1997 goes for about $17.
Eve Zibart is the restaurant critic for The Washington Post's weekend section. This column reflects her dual interests in wine and travel.