Paradise Not

William S. Lin

In last year’s film Punch Drunk Love, a lovely scene takes place in an outdoor venue by the ocean in Honolulu. The camera glides through—capturing a female duo singing and strumming the classic song “Waikiki”—before settling on Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, beautifully lit with the iconic outline of Diamond Head, the famed volcanic crater, gleaming in the distance. The idyllic setting and atmosphere evoke the familiar image of Hawaii as a romantic paradise. And why not? The 50th state is the envy of every tourism bureau the world over, and the islands really are that beautiful. But peek beneath its sunny veneer and you might see transplants from the mainland clashing with locals over culture and language, with Hawaii’s colonial past never far from view. Or you might see locals grappling with poverty and class distinction. In the last few years, several novels set in Hawaii remind us of these issues as they strip away the myth to produce a more nuanced portrait of the state.

In Hotel Honolulu, Paul Theroux depicts a Hawaii that is carnivalesque and seedy, filled with vivid, almost cartoonish characters. The narrator, an accomplished writer who flees to Hawaii and becomes the manager of a run-down Waikiki hotel, casts his observant eye upon the residents of Hawaii as well as its tourists, cataloging their peccadilloes and recording their stories from his perch in the hotel lobby.

The narrator is awed by the scenery when he arrives and ruminates on the “clear skies” and “dazzling” sunlight; studies the waves at Waikiki “gathering shape near the shore to whiten in peaks before sloping and softening,” and considers “the lips of the coastline” and “the gorgeous green pleats of the mountains.” Over time, he integrates himself into local society—marrying one of the hotel’s housekeepers and having a daughter—yet he can’t quite shed his barely concealed contempt for local culture: Hawaii is “literal-minded,” “a culture of grunts and mutters” and “the land of long pauses.” Its people are “as cruel and violent and crafty as people anywhere,” he complains, inarticulate and not attuned to sarcasm. Listening to the local Pidgin English (“just a slovenly and ungrammatical version” of English) is “like hearing birds squawking.”

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Like Theroux’s narrator, the protagonist in Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park, Sharon Spiegelman, arrives in Hawaii as a consummate outsider. Sharon flees the mainland and her estranged family with her boyfriend, Gary. When Gary runs off with another woman to Fiji, Sharon navigates this new territory on her own and embarks on a long spiritual journey. Because this journey takes her to Jerusalem and back to the mainland, Hawaii—as a setting—isn’t as crucial to the narrative as it is in Hotel Honolulu. Yet Paradise Park offers another view of Hawaii, from the outside looking in.

In breezy and conversational prose, Goodman conveys Sharon’s initial wonder at Hawaii’s physical beauty. “I couldn’t get over it. The greens were so green, the blue sky so blue. The leaves, the clouds, even the mock orange bushes,” says Sharon. “It was like everything on that island had just come out of the wash; it was like the trees were hanging out to dry.”

When she attempts to make the transition from tourist to local, she feels a similar tension to Theroux’s narrator. She lands a job at a local fast-food chain, and gets teased by her co-workers “since I was what they called a haole, which was an affectionate way of saying intruder and outsider and interloper.”

She eventually adjusts to the local cuisine and lands a job at a Honolulu landmark store; still, she can’t shake her mainland roots. When she develops a relationship with Kekui, a cook at the restaurant, his parents don’t “approve of me because I was a mainland haole—white—which, no matter how you looked at me, you just couldn’t get around.” “Haole” isn’t so affectionate here. And in Paradise Park’s most stirring passage, Kekui’s mother hurls a stream of insults: “Hippie girl, just ’cause you washed up here on Oahu you don’t need to come invading my family. Go back to where you started—California, England, Holland or whatever nationality you are.”

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In Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s novel Father of the Four Passages, protagonist Sonia Kurisu escapes her troubled childhood in Hilo and Honolulu by moving to Las Vegas. But her life isn’t much improved in Sin City. After giving birth to Sonny Boy, later diagnosed as autistic, she fixates on the ghosts of the three babies she discarded back home: “A hospital’s toxic-waste bin, a dirty toilet at Magic Island and a jelly jar buried outside my bedroom window.” Yamanaka’s gift lies in her ability to lay bare the unattractive underbelly of Hawaii and she possesses a sharp eye for class distinction and effectively conveys shame.

Known for her books composed mainly in Pidgin English, Yamanaka relies on Standard English in Father. At times, her language teeters between the poetic and the indecipherable. Sometimes the odd punctuation and italicization can be distracting, and in a few passages the prose moves in an uneven, stop-and-go rhythm. But at key moments, Yamanaka’s stark language releases a hidden energy. In the epilogue, Sonia, her father and Sonny Boy climb Mauna Kea on the Big Island: “Ten thousand feet above sea level, my ears start to hum, like the ringing of chimes in my head. My breath is short, my step measured. I hear no external sound. The landscape is volcanic and lunar, the sky, a canvas of pure blue.” In contrast to Theroux and Goodman, who use scenery as a way to introduce the characters’ initial awe at a new place, Yamanaka handles scenery as a salve, a spiritual corrective to all of Sonia’s problems.

Through all the depressing subject matter, Yamanaka isn’t afraid to showcase humor. In one scene, Sonia asks her alcohol-and-crack-addled lover in Las Vegas, Drake, about his recent artistic development: “How’s the sweeping epic, Michener?” It’s Sonia’s verbal cut against Drake, but it’s also Yamanaka’s jab against James A. Michener, the prolific and mega-selling author of Hawaii, a sprawling novel first published in 1959. Recently reissued, Hawaii traces the history of the islands from their geologic origins through the creation of a multiethnic society.

Theroux, too, references Michener’s famous book when the narrator finds an early edition by the side of the hotel pool and dismisses it as nothing special. If Yamanaka and Theroux are acting out anxieties of influence, they’re doing it not by politely repaying a literary debt but by cracking jokes at Michener’s expense.

It may be reflex for high-art literary types to sniff at Oprah-esque narratives. But Michener personally recognized what Theroux and Yamanaka demonstrate in their work: Despite its astounding physical beauty, Hawaii was just as flawed a place as any other. Michener lived in Hawaii for a number of years to research and write his book. Two years after its publication, Michener left. “On the day-to-day operating level at which my wife and I lived,” he said at the time, “we met with more racial discrimination in Hawaii than we did in eastern Pennsylvania, where we had previously lived.” The irony might be lost on those who gaze in each other’s eyes in Waikiki at sunset, but not on the recent novelists who gaze at Hawaii after the sun sets.

William S. Lin is a writer based in Brooklyn.
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