North Shore resident Paul Theroux writes a novel about a surfer's redemption

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May 10—Internationally acclaimed author Paul Theroux, whose new novel, "Under the Wave at Waimea, " depicts the physical and moral crises of an aging big-wave surfer on Oahu's North Shore, says he is bemused by the pervasive lack of local interest in his work.

"I'm not complaining, " the Massachusetts native and half-time Haleiwa resident said in a Zoom interview, "but I wonder why it is that my publisher sent copies of the book to nearly every Hawaii media outlet—TV, radio, magazines, newspapers—and the only response, the only interest shown, came from (the Honolulu Star-Advertiser )."

The book, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has been widely reviewed outside Hawaii, and for its April 13 release Theroux was profiled by The New York Times, National Public Radio and "CBS Saturday Morning, " which sent a crew to Haleiwa and "did a big segment, filmed me paddling with my Hawaiian friends."

The film and television rights to "Under the Wave at Waimea " have been bought by Stone Village Productions, which made an HBO series based on Richard Russo's "Empire Falls " and films of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera " and Philip Roth's "The Human Stain."

Theroux's visibility is peaking with Apple TV's production of "The Mosquito Coast, " his best-selling 1981 novel. The series, airing now, stars his nephew Justin Theroux in the role played by Harrison Ford in the 1986 film.

"If and when ('Under the Wave at Waimea') is filmed here, " Theroux said, "the production has the potential to create enormous opportunities for employment and a significant investment of dollars into Hawaii, and of course the film would showcase Hawaii to the world."

For example, the 2011 film "The Descendants, " based on the novel by Hawaii writer Kaui Hart Hemmings, was filmed almost entirely in Hawaii. Directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney, it was nominated for five Academy Awards and won for best adapted screenplay.

"Writers are essential to the culture and part of the economy, (but ) we have no status, " Theroux said.

Citing the diverse realizations of island people and places by award-winning novelists Lois-Ann Yama ­naka, Kiana Davenport and Susanna Moore, "we have a role to play as interpreters, in the same way as a painter or a musician, " he said, "and that is why the arts need to be supported and encouraged here much more than they are."

After more than 30 years in the islands and publishing an earlier Hawaii novel, "Hotel Honolulu, " in 2001, "I still don't know a single person at the University (of Hawaii ) or in politics, " said the 80-year-old author of 32 books of fiction and 20 nonfiction books, including "The Old Patagonian Express " and "The Happy Isles of Oceania."

Not that he's asking for attention—"Forget me, I'm really fulfilled and happy "—but, as shown by his recent pop-up book signing at Bookends in Kailua, he wants readers in Hawaii, where he lives with his island-born wife, Sheila Donnelly.

"Under the Wave at Waimea " shines with scenes of the remaining pristine, natural beauty of Oahu, where Joe Sharkey lives on a lush plot in the Pupukea hills not unlike Theroux's own home. But the author also holds up a mirror to Hawaii's man-made flaws, from invasive species and pollution to substance abuse and homelessness.

It opens with the 62-year-old former pro surfer reveling in his daily bliss, eating fruit from his garden, feeding his chickens and geese, getting barreled at Pupukea and Waimea in gorgeous, sensual surfing scenes, buying ahi from a fisherman's truck, smoking pakalolo and sleeping with his new, much younger girlfriend Olive, in whose opinion "he was like a rare form of marine life, a sea mammal in the foam, the water dog he claimed to be."

But there are disturbances : At a party, Sharkey gets upset that the young surfers haven't a clue what a legend he is, and in a surf session outside Shark's Cove, he doesn't warn two first-timers about the sharp, shallow rocks inside, instead watching them get battered and lacerated while he thinks, "Someone should have told them to be careful here."

Accountability is not Sharkey's style, although as a child he defended a boy against bullies in public school and was expelled from exclusive Punahou School for refusing to rat on fellow dope smokers.

Beyond the disapproval of his parents, an ugly scar on his face from being bitten by a dog as a boy and a brief marriage to a local girl that ended because he doesn't want children, he's led a happy life for more than 50 years in Hawaii, chasing waves around the world, supported by endorsements and his mother's trust fund, never working a regular job.

Each day, "he was only on another wave, sliding, climbing, paddling up its back, hovering at its lip, tipping and then racing through the tube—a man surfing, moving in an easy crouch through turbulence, all the time reading its features and its froth, anticipating its alteration, keeping a fraction ahead of his roll, just a man on a board, flying across the swelling slope of heavy water."

The beauty of his life, Sharkey thinks, is that nothing will change, nothing greater will happen to him, and then it does : Driving home from a bar with Olive on a rainy night, he accidentally hits and kills a homeless man bicycling the wrong way.

The cop on the scene, awed to meet a surf celebrity from his father's generation, accepts Sharkey's lies, and no charges are filed.

"I ran into a drunk homeless guy " is how Sharkey refers to the incident, to Olive's horror, and it becomes her mission to get him to admit he killed a man and find out who he was ; the police are unable, or disinclined, to identify the victim.

At first Sharkey refuses.

Then he dings his new car and his surfboard ; gets robbed ; a coral-cut, goose-clawed, centipede-bitten toe becomes badly infected ; Olive becomes pregnant and he exults at the prospect of first-time fatherhood, but then she miscarries when he takes her bodyboarding.

Stricken by debilitating mental and physical illness, Sharkey finally agrees to search for the dead man's identity.

"He doesn't understand the impact of killing a man, that he's done wrong and has to right it, " Theroux said. "It doesn't really sink in until things start to happen to him, and the book becomes the story of how he gets to the truth."

Real people appear in the novel : Pipeline pioneer Jock Sutherland, big-wave surfer Garret McNamara and the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, all friends of the author, and Eddie Aikau, the revered Hawaiian lifeguard and big-wave surfer, whom he never met.

In their teens Aikau becomes a mentor to Sharkey and tells local surfers to let the haole get waves.

"In order to find a place in Hawaii, you need somebody to stand up for you, " Theroux said. "The only way you can truly understand Hawaii is by having Hawaiian friends."

For 30 years he has been friends with Jon de Fries, the new president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, "my go-to person for consulting on Hawaiian subjects."

More recently, when the longtime ocean kayaker tried single outrigger canoeing, he was adopted by four local OC1 experts.

"They had no idea I was a writer, just saw a haole paddling a canoe, and one of them said, 'Why don't you run with us ?'"

The five now paddle together at least once a week.

As for surfing, "I've been living on the North Shore for almost 30 years, and I've never stood on a surfboard, " he said.

Sharkey's tale, which took him eight years to finish, will be his last novel about "this wonderful but complicated place, " Theroux added, dark eyes glittering above a steady smile.