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.