You lose track of the thing you are beholding, A Review of Hotel Honolulu, by Mario Savioni

Hotel Honolulu

Author: Paul Theroux

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company

Copyright: 2001

ISBN: 0-618-09501-2

List price: $26 (US)

424 pages

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Review Author: Mario Savioni

I have to warn you. At times, as it is with art, you lose track of the thing you are beholding. It triggers memory.

Hotel Honolulu reminded me of where I grew up and throughout this review it is more about me. It is about what I share with Theroux having lived in a Honolulu Hotel. At times perhaps you will see the book coming through but more often than not, as I warn you, these are notes triggered by Theroux’s words and I have been left — being so close to the text — with a random collection of thoughts.

Sex and Relationships

Hotel Honolulu delved deep and involved itself with characters who will brake your heart. It is about how their lives are so inextricably mixed with men who have taken advantage of them and that sex is at the root of human relationships. It is a dance easily exposed for its superficiality when men like Buddy Hamstra pit his children, in absentia, against his newly married wife because she “looks like an angel,” but who was actually brought on because of how she appealed to him in her naked video. Maybe it’s just a desire for intimacy and that sex is a manifestation of that genre that explains how people get together. For “Pinky,” Buddy’s wife, it’s about finding and keeping security after a life of poverty and rape.


By page 157, Theroux reminds us of the sad possibility, unless of course we’ve learned the hard way and taken it to heart, that we are not capable of fidelity. He tells the story of a couple visiting the hotel on their honeymoon. Given the busy lives they lead, one is called away to return to their native city. That evening a local comes on to the woman, and with her honeymoon fresh in mind, she rebuffs him. Still, by the next couple of days she realizes that at some point her husband is going to cheat on her. She wants to be the first.

Architect of One’s Unhappiness

Another story relating to this issue breaks my heart because I understand the injustice. By page 238, you come again to the sad truth of infidelity. A man builds a house for his wife. He must work on the mainland to make the money it is costing him with all the special things she desires. In his absence, her heart grows dimmer. I ask the question: How do you know someone is cheating? You just know. It is a feeling, and if you don’t listen closely it will swallow you. A therapist advised on how you know: “1. Are offering too much help? Instead, you should inspire the other to carryout their goals rather than do the steps for them. 2. Are you sacrificing yourself? 3. Do you see your role as making yourself needed? 4. Do you give the other person money, prestige, and other things? 5. How safe do you feel? Do you become obsessed with tinkering or changing things? 6. You must ask yourself what you bring to the relationship in an attempt to realize your worth.

Most Handsome Man

Quite similar to infidelity is the instinct to think that it is greener on the other side of the relational fence. So we may take to flirtations as through the anonymous vehicle known as the Internet by writing e-mail to strangers and sharing our hopes and dreams. We finally meet that person, who seemed to share our purpose, apparently, as it is with the character on page 246. How odd that perhaps in the venue an ugliness was revealed. In the meeting of the other person, where it was through e-mail, we go so far as to eventually kiss. In this case, Theroux thought the woman blind in not seeing that the man she had been e-mailing was indeed one of the most handsome men he had ever seen. But, by their having used the Internet to met or for some other reason, you knew the woman was correct when she wanted nothing more to do with him.

How Women Can Change Your Life

I never saw Theroux’s “Sweeties” in his life as anyone but island beauties, who never showed interest until I learned at my 20-year reunion that some had crushes on me but I was so religious at the time that they didn’t know what to do. I remarked to Rotina Kiyabu at the Germain’s luau gathering: “If I had only known that you guys liked me, it would have changed my life.”


By page 264, the complication is presented to a man who has everything. As one ages, no accumulation diminishes the fact that youth and beauty have their place but to knock down all material certainties many of us believe we must plan.


Royce Lionberg comes into view (p. 358) as a bitter man who insults women and tells shortened pessimistic stories. One involves a man who “indulged himself in sexual fantasies on the phone with his high school sweetheart.” They finally met, Lionberg said, and then “there were no more calls.”

The story reminded me of a friend of his mother’s who practically lives in a wheel chair because of health problems and age. She assumed a telephone conversation with an old school chum, who is married with children. They are giddy with new love and steal phone calls to each other. I expect that they will eventually visit each other and hopefully it is before he destroys his marriage. The old school chum will look at her and find her physical manifestation diminishing his need for her and they too will end their relationship. One person, it seems, cannot satisfy every need. So, do you find a place where we can get along? It is that people we marry have more to offer than the others, who we’ve spent your lifetime learning could never satisfy us?

Beauty as Truth

I agree with the twenty-something, tall, slender, very pretty and self-possessed Rain Conroy as if through her beauty, you knew that she was wise always at the front lines of some man’s best conversation, as a constant seductive taunt or whine. How you had to become a chess champion to survive the interlocutory jibes of men with two earrings and flesh hanging over their belts.

You saw with Conroy, that beauty was truth. It stripped every man to the chase of getting it, like a fine silver coin only few could possess for its obscurity.

Theroux writes of Conroy: “She had no attachment to anything here, and that would have made her seem frivolous except that she was still talking, still going on about her father.”

A reference to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 reveals that Theroux is actually attacking the calm complacency of the older, far more successful Royce (as in “Rolls?”) Lionberg, which to me is the writer’s enemy — someone materialistic, superficial, one who turns a deaf ear to the soul of life and her youth and beauty.

“Sonnet 94,” according to Rex Gibson of the Cambridge School Shakespeare series known as The Sonnets, page 109, Cambridge University Press, copyright 1997, seems to praise powerful people who refrain from doing harm, and who do not show their emotions, but present an “‘Unmoved, cold,’ face to the world.”

Later however, Gibson continues: “The sonnet may be deeply ironic, criticizing those who control their emotions so firmly” until they become corrupt. “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;/Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” – Shakespeare.

By page 282, you realize that you can’t just touch someone intimately and walk away, you release some human trigger that expels a drug inside that secures a bond that cannot be broken.

On page 285, Lionberg and Theroux are relaying the effects of Conroy, “who was a child,” according to Theroux as Lionberg remarks: “‘Flesh can feel so sad, so mute and helpless. It is so fragile. Flesh can feel like clay. You sense death in it.'”

Of Lionberg, Theroux continued: “Feeling sad, he looked back and saw his past as a succession of failures.

“‘When someone says, [Lionberg continued] “If I had my life to live over again,” people laugh. It sounds ridiculous. But I’ve just realized that I want to live my life over. That’s what love is. The vital force that gives you the strength and optimism to do it over again.'”

The Hostess

Theroux relays another story (pp. 303-307) that carries the same tune of unrequited love. It made me cry for it involved dysfunction, survival, and a hostesses’ past that was lost in a downward spiral. That spiral was charged by circumstances beyond her control. The hostess was like Sweetie’s mother, perhaps, or just “the woman.” I knew such women since I knew of my own loneliness and that of others. I knew life through hardened scowls. We, who bore them, were too desperate to open our eyes to truth. When it finally shone on the hostess, for example: “The woman was already hurt, as much as if she had been physically injured.”

Dick for Brains

This was exactly how my last two relationships made me feel. They ripped my heart out and then they moved on. I promised myself that I would never again make these mistakes with infatuation-based appointments and yet once the dust settled and I’d nearly forgot the pain, I saw a new babe in the distance.

Internal Guide

This time I may make it long enough to grasp a connection to someone moving in my direction. This person will have a similar life’s purpose, and in whose eyes I am not necessarily looking but that this person will have been chosen by an internal guide. Only the guide (See: Carolyn Godschild Miller’s Soulmates, page 18, copyright 2000) knows who is good for us. I have let this part of me go. Someday as I have asked for it, it will be obvious and calmly told to me who my wife shall be. Yes, as Theroux has titled chapter 55, “Love is a girl,” but she is also someone who I will have noticed via my soul’s voice and not by my penis’ wink.

With what may seem as an aside, I wanted to note the skills of Theroux. For apart of everything he delivers, you note, for example, the transition between the end of chapter 53 and the beginning of chapter 54. There the transition from one man’s fetishes to another’s indicates a great writer, who moves with grace using a vehicle of words to bring the reader through time and space.

Prodigal Woman

It wasn’t long ago that I discontinued communications with a woman I was seeing. I sensed she had given up on me as I witnessed, she would flirt with every man she came in contact with. When I stopped communicating with her, she went on her way as I had anticipated she would. She found what she was looking for. Then with bittersweetness, she realized that it wasn’t really what she thought. For what she found bored her. She said that she had cried alone after learning that what she had done was wrong. She sought consolation and forgiveness and began to accept herself. It is well described by a remark made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the Stern Fact, the Sad Self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.”

The woman had been molested by her father. Every relationship with men thereafter was one in which she needed to be the center of attention. She went on crash diets and never ate garlic. She died her hair blond and luckily she was one of the most beautiful women in the world and the attention was always there. But with time, I knew her beauty would fade or alter her ever so slightly. One by one, the men would not look back. She would find her purpose flitting away.

On page 338, Theroux writes about incest: “Though this was unfair, it was logical in a horrible way – the man put on earth to protect you was the one who could do you the most harm, because you trusted him.”

I find in telling you this story, that like her father, I have revealed a secret. In its silence it may have offered protection, but even as she trusted me it would appear I really did not care for her. Instead, as it is with this act of ambition, I am more concerned with myself. I am always perplexed by truth. Is it best to tell so another may have it as fact? Or is it better to have silenced knowledge, so in denying it we will have never known?

Anyone who has read Paul Theroux knows he is dealing with this issue. For his life is an act of fact. He tells you the truth and is often a victim of it. Note his divorce.

Buddy Hamstra told his wife to dance for him (p. 357). “Take your clothes off,” he told her. She put her panties on the chair and danced. As Hamstra watched her in his “breathless” way, he said, “This is my marriage?” You realize the complexity of a man’s needs attempting always to cover the gamut from conversation to lust. Never it seemed could one person cover all the demands brought on them like an octopus. Octopus love is two people trying to find a way to get along. And then you realize that just to love was the key. We are all incapable of perfection.

Uncle David

When I was a child around 10 years old, it was nearly Easter after my parents had been divorced for as long as I could remember, when my father had died. Because my mother claimed to have no friends in the Sacramento area and since my father’s side of the family didn’t like her, she took his sister and him to Honolulu. There, my mother’s brother (Uncle David) (also removed from his ex-wife and the children they shared) lived with a blonde bombshell named Ruth. Uncle David ran a bar and lived on Lewers Street near the Ala Wai Canal, just a few doors down from Kuhio Avenue.

It Wasn’t for the Money

Beach Walk, a street next to and parallel with Lewers sounds like the street where the fictional Honolulu Hotel was situated and where Paul Theroux allegedly went to work. “It wasn’t for material,” he said, “it was [for] the money” and where he wanted to start a new life.

Location, location, location

Funny thing is I assumed all the hotels, with exception to the Outriggers were owned by the Japanese. Buddy Hamstra owned Honolulu Hotel. Hamstra was from Sweetwater, Nevada. It was a quaint little hole in the wall of a hotel with the rest of the hotel in the background. Could it be 250 Lewers, where we lived when I was a child? On page 386, Theroux says two young women jumped to their death from the Outrigger Islander, which is at Kalakaua Blvd. and Lewers Street or next door to my hotel at 250. The Islander is four blocks away from Hotel Honolulu. I can’t tell in what direction.


Anyway, I remember my uncle describing a relationship with the owner of the Outrigger Hotels, like the one Theroux describes and that relationship was probably also built on a favor. This could explain why my uncle lived with his blond bombshell there for more than 30 years and then why my mother also inherited the suite (450 Lewers, 8th floor). There my uncle and his girlfriend lived at the top of the Coral Seas Annex above the House of Hong with its three lanais and a view to the ocean through the trees of the Halekulani and Cinerama Reef Hotels.

Wearing Sunglasses

I remember that first year in the Islands having hated to move from Sacramento and the two-bedroom in the apartment complex, where a group of my relatives came in wearing sunglasses and told me about my father’s death. After crying for hours in the empty tub and after my mother, sister and I said “Good-bye” to my mother’s-then-boyfriend Tom, I took my new Nikes and white shorts and Aloha shirt and we moved deep into the heart of Waikiki.

Flight Attendants

Soon after, I went with the son of a baseball announcer to the top of the stairs of the 10-story portion of the hotel. We peered into a room filled with stewardesses in various states of undress. Finding the image so unbelievable, I laughed and got the flight attendants to disperse with such drama that I and the son ended up running down the sea-green hall toward the elevators.

Beds at an Angle

I remember also necking with one of the baseball announcer’s daughters in a room at the back of the pool full of new and used beds that were leaning against each other but with enough room to get lost in.

Atom Bomb

My uncle’s apartment was filled with electronic gear since he taught at the University of Hawaii in the Physics Department and before that at The University of California at Berkeley, where he taught and helped Edward Teller build the atom bomb. Uncle David provided the electronics expertise. You couldn’t really stay at my uncle’s apartment since there were no seats, just pieces of large electronics equipment and sheets to keep the dust off. There, Uncle David built electronic clocks and computers and programs for weight loss and drawing cowboy hats.

Giant Martinis and Monopoly

We always ended up at “Aunt” Ruth’s. Her place was cozy. We played Monopoly until daybreak and Uncle David drank Black Russians out of giant martini glass-shaped vases, which probably held the equivalent of a bottle of Kalua and a bottle of Vodka with a few floating ice cubes.

Cat got its Tongue

There was a black and white cat named Toby with a giant body and a small head that always had its tongue out and stayed inside one of the many daybed mattresses, where the cat had ripped the sides and crawled in.

Mother’s Pearl

Initially, I lived at 450 and 250 Lewers and then in other places in Waikiki. Toward the end, my uncle left the islands with his girlfriend Ruth and moved to Santa Cruz. After my bad marriage, I moved into the 250 Lewers Suite with my mother. My uncle and Ruth had lived there. It was a four-room suite, including bathroom and kitchen. The common areas were mostly uncluttered. The door to my mother’s room was a cloth-covered lattice. It barricaded the heap of clothes and French Provincial Furniture. Amid the turmoil was a round mother-of-pearl inlaid coffee table. A small trail through the heaps of clothes and things lead to one of two sliding glass doors to balconies stuffed with boxes containing creations (like picnic baskets adorned with artificial flowers) that my mother had made when she was still married to my father. ÊShe carried these things around with her from place to place. After the 25 or so years of her life in the islands, her room was now home to various generations of pigeons and roaches, along the continuum from unhatched to dead. Guano from both species was built up high like adobe huts for the creatures and matted with the fabrics of the contents of the boxes and the smell permeated the suite. Roaches by the thousands ran rampant in those containers and life went on until the manager had asked the long-term residents to leave. By then, I had painted my room turquoise and laid a lemon-yellow carpet, and a loft in his bedroom hallway that was too high and close to the ceiling to sleep in. I built a red desk. I barricaded the sliding glass door and windows with green corrugated fiberglass to block the view of half of the hotel across the street, where Don Ho had his show. I also blocked a view of the Guggenheim Museum-like Sheraton Parking lot at the same time and the back of the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center. I put up the photographs I, and a friend, had taken.

Conversations at the Ice Box

My mother, almost always depressed, suffered migraines. She often slept and came out once in a while and we’d talk. One was inside and one outside of the small kitchen with a refrigerator the size of a 35-inch television.

Crime and Punishment

Funny thing, I never thought of hotel rooms as Theroux did with any erotic tonality. It wasn’t until my relationship with a stewardess that I realized they could be something more than the containers for Crime and Punishment characters.

Fellow Writers and Truth

On page 208, Theroux says that the spoken words of fellow writers can almost make you cry when you realize as those words peeling into the distance are like doves and you are at peace with the craft. “I stared at him,” the autobiographic Theroux relays, “as though at a brave brother voyager from our old planet.”

Leon Edel

The man to whom Theroux refers is Leon Edel, biographer of the great Henry James. Edel is on the beach remarking on the sunset: “‘The red light breaking at the close from under a low somber sky, reached out in a long shaftÉand played over old wainscots, old tapestry, old gold, old color.'”

Hawaii is the Place

The two of them decide that Hawaii is the place to be as on page 210. Theroux remarks to Edel that “‘We’re not crazy. This is the place.'”

The Jewel at the End of the Day

I have often asked myself why I cannot live in Hawaii. It is because it is a jewel that I may not have until I have made a name for myself and a whole lot of money.


Edel is explaining an insight he had of James’ stories. “His stories were his fantasies,” Edel said.

Stranger to Fiction

I never thought to write fantasies. I was always stuck with the weather of what was outside. I never thought to use words as dreams. The recent stretch of films, like Requiem for a Dream or Traffic get closer and closer to reality. For this reason I did not like movies anymore. There was a time when I demanded that movies tell the truth — life is harsh, grim, and sad. We apparently have to learn the hard way. Now, I cannot take it seeing life flashed back as if the screen were a mirror of my loneliness and everyone were a stranger.

Running From Truth

Moreover, as I have espoused since reading Hemingway’s advice, I cannot help but question getting very far from truth since Hemingway advises against it:

“Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is, so that when he makes something up it is as it would truly be. If he doesn’t know how many people work in their minds and actions his luck may save him for a while, or he may write fantasy. But if he continues to write about what he does not know about he will find himself faking. After he fakes a few times he cannot write honestly any more,” – Ernest Hemingway, Esquire, November 1935.

As I try to relay to my ex-girlfriend, to ignore the truth means one must repeat it.

On page 218, Theroux again deals with the issue of staying with the truth because “the alternatives,” he says, “sounded false and fabricated.”

I too have needed to write fact because to not do so is to obscure an already tenuous view. I need to know that I can tell the truth no matter how hard it may be.

Get a Life

On page 381, Theroux’s wife Sweetie looks at him as he is in a bad way with regard to his decision to take on the job as hotel manager. Theroux thinks he hears people talking about him: “He’s put on weight; you can tell he doesn’t belong here; he’s not a happy camper;” or “Oh, yes, he once wrote books!” While most writers feel that they are doing what they were born to do, they also feel alone in their perceptions of place. Like Gods, they come from an all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful perspective as they write about life. They observe it and seldom do they participate. Most writers, articulate and knowledgeable automatically, are narcissistic. Like Theroux, they have to keep themselves in the fray to keep truth close. They are resentful that they are not greater writers like Tolstoy or Shakespeare. Such writers are never present in their writing. So, when his Sweetie says to him: “You just sit and read booksÉ Get a life,” Theroux is penetrated deeply. Ê “Reading for him,” he said, “was like breathing.” He needs books, as all writers do, to keep the stream of consciousness honed into the articulation of self that is purest when it is given the serum inherent in well-wrought words.

Once a Writer

Beyond this, Theroux meets with Edel to confer with the man who might understand his tossing and turning with regard to his station in life. Edel compliments him: “‘You’re a writerÉ That’s a pathological condition.'” Theroux is having a hard time dealing with his inability to write in Hawaii. “‘When the right moment comes,'” Edel continues, “‘You’ll do it well, precisely because of the difficulties you’re describing.'”

But “‘short stories are hard,” Theroux exclaims. “These are hearsay,” he told Edel.

Edel countered him: “Nothing is hearsay. What you’re talking about will come straight out of your heartÉ You’re in the lap of the actual! (p. 382)”

Theroux describes his writing as “the detailed autobiographical fantasies of his fiction (p. 388).” Because of his openness, I am much enamored by Theroux’s writing. I trust him. When Theroux complains about the assertion of his wife that he is jealous of Steven King, for example, he explains that King is not a true novelist. “Horror is a broken leg,” Theroux argues, “it’s not a dog that gets bitten by a diabolical bat and besieges a mother and sonÉ” Theroux’s daughter agrees with him and comes up with an example of her own “that’s worse than a horror story, because it’s real.”

Summing Up

Toward the end of the book, I get a sense of Theroux’s coming to terms with himself as writer self-exiled to Hawaii. And he confirms this on page 420, where he says: “More than ever I was convinced that I was where I wanted to be.” He is positive and joyful. He talks about Hamstra’s various stumbles, falls, and keeling that gave him the reputation of a clown. Theroux laughs as we all do, when Hamstra says that the “best sex he ever had,” was with his current wife “‘Cause she’s wacko (p. 407).”

A White Man’s South

All the characters seem to have lives of their own and are not interfered with just because Theroux is writing an autobiographical account. This is why I like this book, because he is not the only one we are listening to. Theroux has done his work by listening and writing these things down. We never see him except as a storyteller. Through his generosity as a journalist, our lives are enriched. This is a book that I would highly recommend because it accurately portrays life for a white, educated man in Hawaii. Hawaii is a humbling experience.

Hawaii’s Children

On page 80, Theroux relays information about his daughter Rose. She is the product of a local girl whose grandmother had casual sex with a Kennedy then gave birth to Rose’s mother.

Theroux, is a little-known writer to locals, but not to most of us. This is not to say that many locals did not know of Theroux, it is just that their behavior (as he relays it) toward impractical professions, like writing, was not something they would pay attention to. The incognito role Theroux plays, for example, in his place as a hotel manager testifies to my notification of Theroux’s daughter. At a young age, she could do battle with an ancient columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser paper, who as Rose later reveals is sanctimonious. I noticed growing up that the children of Hawaii are both sarcastic and therefore wise beyond their years. Theroux later reveals that in attempting to read Anna Karenina, Rose manifests the argument posed by David Ruenzel. He said, the SAT did not test the ability to summarize an essay’s argument or paraphrase a poem (See: “The SAT and the assault on literature, The San Francisco Chronicle, p. A21, June 12, 2001). Certainly, Rose was a “scanner of textÉ [She] searched not for the soul of a work, but for the indispensable bit of information.” I error because it would seem that Rose knew well the soul of Madam Ma and yet this intuition was just that, it had no certainty within the innocence of her youth.


Rose might attack the gossip columnist with: “‘Faces’ sounds like ‘feces,'” and give a throaty laugh. “‘I’m not making feces!'” I don’t know how to describe Rose’s brilliance otherwise. She reminds me of many local children in Hawaii who were keen observers and relentlessly sardonic. I only wonder what it meant from a psychological standpoint. Yet Theroux alludes to the weaknesses of even these wise owls. When you think about it, it is easy to insult someone whose problems are revealed to you. Oddly, perhaps, what we see we have seen in ourselves.

Living White in Hawaii

Not only did I note the sarcasm and hurtfulness of many of my brilliant schoolmates as I was growing up, but as it was from day one until I left the islands, I felt as Theroux that being there one had “the feeling of having looked into the window of a house [one] would never be able to enter” (p. 296).

What Hawaii Is

Hawaii is beautiful but you wouldn’t know it as such. It isn’t the Kodak Hula Show although that is beautiful, it isn’t the palm trees and the balmy winds, although it is. It isn’t the people, either… It isn’t anything but the surface and what’s underneath. It’s like wanting to spend every hour enjoying the natural beauty, but realizing you have to work two jobs just to keep a place to sleep at night, it is that you are living on someone else’s land, where your relatives killed theirs (p. 378).

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