Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux review – death, drugs and board games

A car accident knocks a sixtysomething surfer’s life off balance in the veteran travel writer and novelist’s intricate page-turner

Paul Theroux, who has averaged roughly a book a year since 1967 and who turned 80 last month, isn’t slowing down. Not for him the approach of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, whose fiction dwindled into novellas before stopping entirely. Theroux’s new novel is a full-fat epic, inspired by his adopted home of Hawaii (he divides his time between there and Cape Cod: must be rather tiring, to quote Basil Fawlty).

This is the story of champion surfer Joe Sharkey, to whom surfing is “a dance on water … not a sport at all … but a way of living your life”, who surfs a wave as though “carving his signature on it”. But this surfer dude – famous at 17, a champion at 20 – is now 62 years old, not really a dude any more, and not too sure about the surfer bit either. He enjoys a level of renown, though some younger surfers haven’t heard of him, and ageing fame isolates. He doesn’t have any friends, and chatting up a young waitress, he’s stopped short when she says her boyfriend’s father “used to see you in the lineup when he was a kid”. Oof.

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