Novel of the week

Hotel Honolulu

Paul Theroux <em>Hamish Hamilton, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0241141303

Mention Hawaii and most people think of the famous TV show: those rolling drums, that zoom shot of the handsome Jack Lord, the hula girls, the canoe loads of portly islanders chugging up the bay. In this, his latest novel, Paul Theroux has created a similarly secure universe, a series of variations on a theme - which, although full of tears and death, has a strange predictability.

Our unnamed narrator is, would you believe, a writer who has rejected the literary life. Soft- landing in Hawaii, he comes under the protection of a millionaire called Buddy Hamstra - "a big, blaspheming, doggy-eyed man in drooping shorts". Something of a Falstaffian figure, lusting after comely masseuses, cherishing a heart-shaped box in which he keeps his first wife's ashes, Buddy owns Hotel Honolulu and offers the narrator the run of it. Through the shabby lobby pass a succession of chancers, losers, prudes and crooks, and the narrator is moved to take up his pen again, becoming their secret biographer - a scribe, as it were, to a Chaucerian parade. Or rather, in the clipped patois of Hawaii, he "talks story".

In these stories, we see first the public mask, then the private grief, of the incumbents. Puamana, a part-time prostitute who hangs around the hotel bar (which the narrator has pointedly renamed Paradise Lost), is a former nun, despatched to a convent after an incestuous relationship with her father. A stately widow is revealed as a sharp sexual operator, ensnaring wealthy men with her devastating technique. And then there is the preening Madam Ma, an ageing gossip columnist who began life as a beautiful ingenue, the child of a malformed factory worker.

The single theme running through Hotel Honolulu is announced in the opening lines: "Nothing to me is so erotic as a hotel room." In a novel that is 80 chapters long, Eros leaves an impressive slew of victims in his wake. Among them is Royce Lionberg who, once considered the happiest of men, falls fatally in love with a waitress. Elsewhere, Madam Ma has an affair with her gay son's lover, which ends in tragedy.

Hawaii might well be a collection of "green mute islands", but it is born of volcanoes. It is also impossibly trashy, a place whose past is processed for tourist consumption, and whose locals speak "a debased and highly colloquial form of English composed of moody-sounding grunts and utterrances and wilful mispronunciations". In the midst of this, the narrator, his head full of high culture, is inevitably lost. Although he quickly hitches up with Puamana's daughter, Sweetie - his "coconut princess" - he remains "an alien in an aloha shirt, gazing at Hawaii through dark glasses". Holding on to a prized copy of Anna Karenina and enjoying a rare intellectual friendship with another Hawaii resident, a famous biographer of Henry James, he is permanently ineffectual.

His predicament, however, seems self-imposed - or rather, no more than an intellectually lazy strategy on Theroux's part. It doesn't take much, after all, to deliver a few swift blows to the king of schlock's soft belly. And a few journalistic swipes at both our narrator's and Theroux's former residence, London - "All those bomb sites. Budget conscious buildings. Twice breathed air" - reveal nothing about the initial crisis that jettisoned him out of it.

This, then, is little more than a stock portrait of the artist befuddled by his artisanal role in a world of plastic. Which is frustrating - because one never gets the sense that Theroux is aware of his narrator's complacency. Although deftly told and consummately structured, Hotel Honolulu lacks any real moral urgency. It is time, Paul, to take off those dark glasses.