Its immersion in the physical essence and social divides of Hawaii feels profoundly experienced rather than merely observed ... Theroux’s conjuring of surfing’s allure to Joe is incantatory, ecstatic, hypnotic. Joe’s surf-centric travels over the world are another highlight of the book, with Theroux’s Trevor Noah-worthy gift for rendering accents and dialects on the page getting a good workout ... reads like lived sensation. It’s peopled with real surfing legends, many of them native Hawaiian, and includes a gleeful portrait of writer Hunter S. Thompson ... Some elements of the novel ask for more than the usual suspension of disbelief. But as in much of Theroux’s fiction, the bold symmetries and heightened language make it clear that he’s aiming for something beyond routine naturalism ... immerses you so elaborately in its watery world that you may start seeing surfing as just another guise for life itself. And as in life, it can leave you feeling uncertain of where you’re headed ... one of Theroux’s best novels.
... didn’t [Theroux] notice that after Part 1 (in which Sharkey hits the homeless man and goes into a funk while Olive has a setback of her own) the book loses both tension and forward motion? Part 2 backtracks into Sharkey’s childhood and earlier life for 177 episodic pages, apparently to account for why he cares only about surfing; we’d have been willing to take his blankness as a given, assume he’d been wounded and get on with the story ... It would be a turnaround worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge — if the pre-conversion Sharkey weren’t a dullard compared to that shrewd comic gargoyle ... Although Under the Wave at Waimea has its implausibilities, this moment seems exactly right. We can accept Sharkey’s transformation into a compassionate human — you see this stuff in fiction all the time — but into a reader? An old pro like Theroux knows that the willing suspension of disbelief has its limits.
Stoked! (Delighted! Excited!), as might say any number of Waimea characters. That will be the response to the novel of the author’s fan base, for in it they will get not just the quintessential Paul Theroux narrative—prodigal, mischievous, irreverent, counter-intuitive, grounded in books, and morally off-angled—but too, in Joe 'the Shark' Sharkey, a character that has the potential to stay around. Also, they will be consoled to know that into his eightieth year, their favored author has still 'got the juice, has got the moves' (as might say Uncle Sunshine, Sharkey’s ungrammatical surfing guru in his teen years). Ditto those who are new to Theroux. Waimea will be a winner for them too, I’m thinking. As for those who have been put off by Theroux in the past, however—yes, I know where you’re coming from. More palatable as an opera than as a novel all that familial backbiting in Motherland and incestuous sex in Picture Palace: that, though it was another reader’s way of expressing it, was my feeling too. Well, as it happens, the offensive materials in Waimea are only mildly so, and, for that reason, maybe it’s time for folks like me and that other reader to get over our issues with the man’s work and recognize his insight as more central to the human experience than we think.
Theroux’s vivid, eloquent prose helped rescue me from my pandemic funk as he takes Joe on a deep dive into his childhood as an army brat ... an absorbing and redemptive love story of a desolate soul set in one of Earth’s most beautiful locales ... I was swept away by waves of emotion as Joe Sharkey’s life plays out on the pages, and he reaches out to grasp reality and restore his sanity.
As with his totemic travel writing, exotic settings and a flair for adventure invigorate the otherwise workmanlike prose, and the scenes flash with surfer’s lingo, snatches of Hawaiian pidgin and odes to the ocean ... True, the anecdotes can get a touch long-winded. There’s an extended section recalling Sharkey’s odd-couple friendship with a strung-out Hunter S. Thompson (aka the Duke of Puke) that was probably more enjoyable to write than it is to read. But what Mr. Theroux nicely captures are not just surfing tales but a surfer lifestyle dedicated to self-sufficient contentment, what Sharkey calls 'the economy of enough.' Here is a book about losing happiness and the struggle demanded to recover it.
... a full-fat epic ... Backstory is always a risk – do we need to know why the hero is that way? Can’t the reader decide for themselves? – but it’s kept interesting with lashings of death, drugs, alcoholism, misbehaviour and, this being a Theroux novel, parents who are no better than they ought to be. We even get a cameo from Hunter S Thompson, though his countercultural shtick is no more interesting here than it was in his own work ... 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 ... 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.
Devotees of Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source (1984) who have been searching for the next great surfing novel need search no more. In flowing, lyrical prose, Theroux celebrates the sheer individualistic exhilaration of riding waves ... this story of surfing champion Joe Sharkey captures not only the pure pleasure he feels in the water, but also the mess and muddle that nearly engulf him on land ... There is a bone-deep melancholia here, but it never quite drowns the profound, life-giving joy of a man who finds a way, however fleeting, to carve his name on water.
... immersive ... The past and present halves of the story don’t really coalesce, but Sharkey makes for an enjoyably larger than life character ... The author’s fans will appreciate the perfectly rendered exotic setting, which takes the reader deep inside the Hawaiian surf culture.