Joe Sharkey can barely go anywhere in Hawaii without someone recognizing him.
He’s “Da Shark.” In the world of surfing, he’s the Dude. He’s a Triple Crown Winner, master of the giant waves, a death-defying monk seal of a man. He is the Tom Brady of surfing, LeBron of the bomb.
Sharkey is also 62 years old, skin leathered by years in the sun, creaking joints, his best waves behind him. While he can barely go anywhere in Hawaii without someone recognizing him, only one person might know his name. He will pass through the rest of the crowd in anonymity, the throngs oblivious to his past celebrity.
“Under the Wave at Waimea” by Paul Theroux explores, through Sharkey, the fading star of celebrity that usually burns out long before egos do. Theroux’s latest novel also looks beneath the surface at aging in a culture that prizes fame and youth as a social currency.
“Surfing was the pulse and passion of his life, not like a sport that involved catching a ball or swinging a bat, and not a recreation, either,” Theroux writes. “It was a way of living your life that only other surfers understood – even the posers and punks who’d somewhat spoiled it; and good waves took precedence over everything on land.
“When the surf was up, Sharkey was on it, no matter what else was happening. And nothing was comparable to surfing – no job, no enterprise, no other event.”
“Da Shark” had been privileged enough to live that kind of life, thriving off endorsements and an inheritance from his mother.
By this time in his life, clinging onto youth with a much-younger girlfriend, Olive, a British nurse, Sharkey has slipped to repeating tall tales of his rides. While reading this novel, one can sense if it ever is adapted into a movie, Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” will find its way into the soundtrack.
Disaster, however, upends the laidback life of waiting for the next wave. The ensuing turmoil jolts Sharkey onto a dual path of both reflections on his own past and a search to sketch out the life of a dead man who haunts the silver-haired surfer.
That one of Sharkey’s key revelations is a close friendship built with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is more than a random encounter. The fictional Sharkey of the novel and the real-life Thompson complement each other in the way their legend builds and then flames out in an orgy of selfish overindulgence.
Sharkey notes that Thompson’s girlfriends become more like nurses trying to keep him upright. Sharkey’s own girlfriend becomes a caretaker as the surfer begins to wipe out.
Yet, the two wild men feed each other’s egos. Sharkey gives Thompson a vicarious peek into the risky world of the 100-foot wave rodeo.
Thompson, meanwhile, provides Sharkey a sense of importance through the written word – “and he remembered Hunter saying, ‘Perilous quest’ and ‘holy grail of the ocean,’ the powerful words justifying what he did every day and making it seem like it mattered.”
Theroux keeps Sharkey searching for answers with a hard-driving narrative of tropical travels and colorful cultural byways, even when the road leads inland, away from the world’s most beautiful coastlines.
Theroux also peppers Sharkey’s life with vivid sexual encounters that tease up to an erotic line without crossing it, like satisfying foreplay.
“Under the Wave at Waimea” is an exploration of living fast but not dying young. It’s a story about what it means to outlive that which most excites us. But the story of Joe Sharkey also looks at how one can find greater wisdom with age – if they just know where, and how, to search for it.
Ron Sylvester has been a journalist for more than 40 years with publications including the Orange County Register, Las Vegas Sun, Wichita Eagle and USA Today. He currently lives in rural Kansas.