Paul Theroux’s new novel centres on Joe Sharkey, aka the Shark, who has spent a lifetime surfing the waves in South Africa, Brazil and Tahiti, as well as his adopted home of Hawaii. Now in his sixties, his extensive tattoos faded and ‘indistinguishable from bruises’, Joe fears he is washed up. He is living off past glories, such as the time he rode a monster wave at Nazaré, and he recounts his stories to anyone who will listen, all the time wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke. Increasingly reliant on his much younger girlfriend, Olive, an English nurse, he comes to believe he may never surf again.
One night, driving home in a rainstorm, Joe hits and kills a cyclist. The police cannot identify the dead man but conclude that he was drunk, possibly full of drugs and cycling on the wrong side of the road. Joe doesn’t admit that he himself had been smoking weed and drinking, and he is found not culpable. He dismisses the deceased as a ‘drunk homeless guy’. Appalled at his failure to take responsibility, Olive forces him to find out who the man was, a quest that leads to some unexpected and devastating discoveries.
The novel is equally concerned with establishing who Joe Sharkey is. He is the latest in Theroux’s line of damaged men, which stretches from Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast (1981) to shop owner Ellis Hock in The Lower River (2012). Like them, he is a brilliantly complex and captivating