‘You have everything, especially that thing that makes you impossible to write about—you’re happy,” a magazine interviewer gushes in Paul Theroux’s “Under the Wave at Waimea” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 409 pages, $28), speaking to big-wave surfer Joe Sharkey. Sharkey does have a way of making everyone else’s life choices seem desperately misguided. A military brat who came to Hawaii as a kid, he dropped out of school to commit to surfing, quickly racking up championships. He’s traveled the world conquering the most extreme swells, from Chile’s El Gringo to Nazaré off Portugal. He subsists on endorsements and a hefty inheritance, and he’s got a wise, devoted girlfriend, an ER nurse named Olive. “The best surfer is the one having the most fun,” he likes to declaim, and for most of his aquatic life he’s honored the maxim.
But because happiness writes white, as the saying goes, Mr. Theroux begins the novel in a period of rare crisis. Sharkey is an autumnal 62 years old, still surfing but increasingly given to living in the past tense. Driving home from dinner one rainy night, tipsy and melancholic, he hits and kills a homeless man bicycling on the wrong side of the road. Sharkey’s celebrity helps him escape legal punishment but not the consequences of karma. The only way to dispel the “sinister shadow” that has fallen over him, Olive is convinced, is if he takes full responsibility for the death, and with that the story forks, both flashing back to recount Sharkey’s glorious heyday and following his quest for repentance, like “Crime and Punishment” set in Hawaii’s slums.
Mr. Theroux, now 80 years old, has written over 50 books and you get the sense that Sharkey’s motto has always been close to his heart—the man is still having fun. 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. The young Sharkey learns to scan the rhythms of the waves as if they were lines of poetry, we read, discerning “their mood and curvature, how they lifted and curled, the ways in which a certain bellying just beforehand suggested slippage and speed.”
The secrets of the forest, a double agent’s last confession, Paul Theroux’s surfing tale, a friendly pack of dog stories and more.
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.
True, obliterating happiness is found only on the dance floor in Virginie Despentes’s sui generis “Vernon Subutex” trilogy, of which volume 3 (FSG Originals, 370 pages, $18) now appears in Frank Wynne’s kinetic translation from the French. Vernon is the epic’s vagabond hero, a “shaman of the turntable.” A homeless aging ex-punk who once owned a record store, he’s the taciturn leader of a motley group of outcasts who have left French society for an ad hoc community centered on free-for-all raves, known as “convergences.” Vernon’s disciples include porn stars, fundamentalist Muslims, rightwing nationalists and alcoholic vagrants—“a very particular group of individuals who have nothing in common and yet instinctively manage to speak as one.”
Having reached a height of cult renown at the end of volume 2, the utopia is endangered throughout the final volume by the linked forces of capitalist greed and political animosity. A sudden windfall divides the people closest to Vernon; cascading acts of vengeance galvanized by “the rage of a victim” introduce gruesome eruptions of violence. The broadening of the trilogy’s themes, occasioned by its desire to encompass French current events, brings about qualities of haste and summarization. The first (and best) volume is extraordinary for its uncensored, hyperrealist character sketches of deadbeat Parisians of all stripes. Volume 3 is more of a political fable, an impression solidified by a weird and memorable coda that traces the afterlife of the “Subutex sect” across the coming centuries all the way to the “twilight of the third millennium.”
Daniel, the narrator of Will Leitch’s novel “How Lucky” (Harper, 290 pages, $25.99), has spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive disease that attacks the core muscles, including, fatally, the lungs. Daniel is a wheelchair-bound 26-year-old—“creaky old age for someone with SMA.” He lives in Athens, Ga., works as a freelance social-media manager for a regional airline (which mostly entails fielding abuse from irate customers on Twitter) and socializes with his care provider Marjani and his childhood friend Travis, but he doesn’t get out much, which is why he’s at home to witness the abduction of a college student named Ai-Chin one morning on his street.
The kidnapping becomes a huge regional news story, yet Daniel’s condition—especially his difficulty speaking—makes the police unwilling to take his testimony seriously. “Suffering from a disease automatically makes people empathetic toward you, which sounds like something you’d want but absolutely is not,” he says of the patronizing treatment. He turns to online sleuthing, resulting in an email correspondence with a man claiming to have abducted Ai-Chin and culminating in a violent confrontation in his own home.
The crime drama in “How Lucky” is, it has to be said, pretty ludicrous. Among many implausible aspects, the sociopathic kidnapper who targets Daniel does not have a gun—mainly because, if he did, Mr. Leitch couldn’t stage a showdown between them. If you can overlook all that, however, you’ll find a touchingly imagined portrait of friendship and community. This book’s version of Ms. Despentes’s identity-erasing dance parties is Game Week, when all of Athens floods the streets to tailgate in support of the college football team. The illness, violence and pathological hatreds that dominate our news feeds run throughout “How Lucky,” but Mr. Leitch is one of many novelists trying to bring to life the connections that persist despite them.
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