Hotel Honolulu
by Paul Theroux


West Maui Book Club "Hotel Honolulu" Discussion Questions

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1. Because of the high sexual content (consensual or not in all its many forms) this novel will most likely divide readers. So where do you stand in your opinion of “Hotel Honolulu?" And, in particular to our members of the West Maui Book Club since we have an insiders view on Hawaii's culture, how does this novel stack up to the opinion you already hold?

2. The opening line well sums up the type of carnal world you’re about to visit: “Nothing to me is so erotic as a hotel room, and therefore so penetrated with life and death.” (pg 1) And, its main character, Buddy Hamstra, epitomizes that premise. However, it’s the narrator’s last line (whose name we never learn) that seems the most profound: “People elsewhere said how distant I was, and off the map, but no – they were far away, still groping onward. I was at last where I wanted to be. I had proved what I had always suspected, that even the crookedest journey is the way home.” (pg 424)
     Discuss what crooked road brought you to Hawaii? Or, if you live elsewhere, what road would bring you here?
     My personal journey came after taking stock of life during the tragic 9/11 terrorist acts and the death once a year, every year for ten years straight of a family member, friend or acquaintance. My husband and I had enough. The rest of our circle was well enough that we felt comfortable to go on living where we most wanted to live and that was Hawaii.

3. Which character or life’s story most affected you and why?

4. Throughout, Paul Theroux tosses out little jewels about living in Hawaii. Because you live here, can you relate to them? Below are a few. Which resonated most with you and why? For example:
     “I liked Hawaii because it was a void. There was no power here apart from landowning, no society worth the name, just a pecking order. There was a social ladder but it wasn’t climbable, and the higher on it people stood, the sillier they looked, because everyone knew their secrets. On such small islands there was hardly any privacy, because people constantly bumped into each other….” Pg. 9
     “…Sweetie had come back from the buffet with a full plate – a scoop of sticky rice, two slabs of Spam looking like a pair of pink epaulettes, a dill pickle, cold clotted potato salad, a dish of gluey poi, a broken and buttered muffin, a glass of fruit punch, a bowl of Jell-O with fruit chunks suspended in it. Winona said, ‘She eating ethnic.’” Pg. 208
   “”…More than seven years had passed since I had come to Hawaii and taken over as hotel manager. But the longer I stayed, the deeper my understanding of the paradox that the people with the lowest status had the greatest seniority. Like Mohawks in Manhattan, Hawaiians in Hawaii had no wealth and were almost placeless, yet they could pull rank even on the missionary families. Hawaiians were like impoverished aristocrats who had sold the castle, the land, and the family silver, and yet, battered and threadbare, they still kept the family name. This also meant that every human encounter involved a tricky negotiation, because pride was involved.” (pg. 279)
     “He just smiled. In his mind, the mainland was one simple place, not many different, highly complex ones, like the Hawaiian Islands – a notion I had almost begun to subscribe to myself after all these years.” Pg 366
     All of Chapters 71 and 72. (pgs 369 – 378)
     But it is the last paragraph in particular spoken by Peewee that deserves special attention. (pg 378) “This was paradise once. That was lovely -- I remember it. Before Pearl Harbor. Before the war. I was just a kid. Of course, it’s not paradise anymore. That’s why I like the name you gave the bar - Paradise Lost – because the only place that can truly be hell is the one that was once paradise.’ He was silent and then said, ‘That’s what makes Whyans so sad.’”

5. The story brings together a gamut of characters, from Peewee in the kitchen and Trey the janitor, to high profile people like President John F. Kennedy, literary critic and biographer Leon Edel, and fictional writer and wealthy retiree Royce Lionberg. Now, given that Hotel Honolulu was the convenient location for these characters to meet and mingle, do you, however, find living here brings the same opportunity…regardless of a hotel? How many different circles do you revolve were this is true?

6. What impression does Theroux’s characterization of the Filipino population give you? And in particular, what about his Filipino women? Aside from Rose – the narrator’s daughter of whom he puts on par with himself – discuss, if any, their redeeming qualities.

7. How best would you sum up Buddy Hamsta? The narrator? And their relationship?

8. In Chapter 30 -- the short story of the suicidal manager of the Kodama Hotel -- do you believe there is such a connection between the Hawaiian and Japanese cultures? (pgs. 143- 147) If so, discuss pride verses righteousness and the importance of each as used here. Discuss also how one group affected or compared to the other.

9. What new words or understandings did you pick up, because we learned a lot of Hawaiian words and names for things like: Mak’a’li’i (Eyes of the King) for the Pleiades, Kana Kaloka for Santa Clause, the Hawaiian State motto as “Hele I Loko, Haole ‘ino, Aka Ha’awi Mai Kala” for “Go Home, you Mainland Scum” – not really, that’s Theroux’s version. It’s really “Ua Mau Ke ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono” – “The Life of the Land Is Perpetuated in Righteousness.” But nothing is more confusing than Pidgin English! See Chapter 3 (pgs 13-15), the Scrabble Game of Chapter 54 (278 – 282), or the reference to death as “He wen mucky” (pg 87).

10. The narrator –- a writer of several books -- left England and a wife, which we do not learn until pg 284, he was 49 years old (pg 1), and once lived in Africa (pg 360). Other than that, he’s pretty sketchy so why do you think we never learn the narrator’s name or any more about him? Could he be any man or malihini (newcomer)?

11. Theroux wrote many descriptive words about scenic Hawaii, but how familiar does this one sound to you? Page 363, paragraph three: “My feet are like ice,’ Buddy said. ‘Go ahead, feel my hands.’ No one dared. Buddy looked concussed. He had a dark, roasted-looking face: he had to be feverish. But cold? The temperature was in the nineties, the humidity just below that, giving the hot Honolulu streets the ripe stink of gasoline and garbage. The throb of overheated metal on car bodies made them look explosive. The sky was sealed, like the inside of a great sagging tent, low and gray with volcanic dust that had drifted in from the live craters of the Big Island. The air was sour with heat, the hotel doors handles sticky from people clutching ice cream cones. Purple car fumes collected and thickened, as pretty as poison rising in the traffic. There was no surf. There seldom was on such days. Waves broke at the shore in low exhausted plops and were sieved by the hot sand on which barefoot tourists danced in pain. Off shore, the ‘ vog’ of the furry sky gave the motionless sea the overboiled appearance of reheated soup, and in places the ocean was as scummy and opaque as tepid bath water. Even the nonperspiring Japanese were glowing.”

12. After our full discussion, what is your new and final assessment of Hotel Honolulu? A lot of fact? A lot of fiction? He writes on page 180, “Sadism, which is an element in all practical jokes, perhaps the central element, was the grain of Buddy’s character…” Given that there is a lot of sadism in “Hotel Honolulu,” is it possible Theroux wrote this story as a practical joke?

West Maui Book Club discussion questions compiled by:
Elaine Gallant
West Maui Book Club
Jan, 2016