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.
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.