The High Line: May 2021

Guest Edited by Paul Theroux.

Light / Dark

Hello from the North Shore of Oahu, from my house up the hill in Pupukea, on another lovely morning. The magnificent Pacific is visible through the boughs of my ironwood trees. The surf is negligible—a south swell in Honolulu, though. I’ve been working on a novel for about a year and, on a day like this, I’ll put it aside at lunchtime, put my outrigger on my roof rack, and head to Haleiwa to go paddling with some friends.


by Jean-Luc Godard

I have 50 to 100 favorite films. The first one I really loved, though, was Breathless with Jean-Paul Belmondo.

The Big Lebowski
by the Coen Brothers

I’ve seen this film 15 times, and would see it another 15. It’s a masterpiece that makes me laugh. I don’t want to be tormented by a film. I don’t want to be puzzled and to have to look for meaning. I want it to be like a long, tasty drink and to be reminded of its pleasures. Every surfer understands Jeff Bridges’ brilliant epitaph: “The Dude abides.”


Bob Dylan

I can’t think of any particular albums but I listen a lot to the music of Bob Dylan. Dylan is exactly my age, he lived through the same events—transformative ones and also idiotic ones—and his responses to them in his really wonderful lyrics are moods I easily relate to. He also has a sense of humor.

by Philip Glass

I listen to Philip Glass on long-distance road trips, like from Boston to Los Angeles, which I did a few months ago. Or when I’m going through New Mexico and Arizona, listening to Koyaanisqatsi, speeding past red cliffs. It is hypnotic, trance-like, and soothes and resonates.


The Pacific Alone
by Dave Shively

A 2019 account of the voyage of Ed Gillet, who paddled his kayak from San Diego to Maui about 30 years ago. It was a brave, even heroic, trip by a man so modest he did not write about it and rarely gave interviews. Shively does him justice. 

Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad

I’ve returned to this novel many times. Conrad was not only a great writer, but a master navigator who sailed all over the Indian Ocean as well as to Australia and back when he was “Captain Korzeniowski.” This is the ultimate journey up the Congo River.


A Traveling Perspective

When I was 22 years old, I joined the Peace Corps and became a teacher at a bush school in Nyasaland, Central Africa. This was 1963. The following year Nyasaland became Malawi, and I witnessed the independence ceremony. Malawians were decolonized and hopeful, and there were only about 4 million of them. Over the years I’ve returned to the country and my old school, and each time I see more people, greater cynicism for politicians, but people with a will to overcome hardships. There are now almost 20 million people, and a million orphans. The best way to understand the direction of the world is to revisit a place you knew long ago. Not always a happy experience but always an enlightening one.


OC-1 Pueo-X

This outrigger canoe is great—light, swift, well-made. The guys I paddle with work at Schofield Barracks and are much younger than me, but they have my back. I am a kupuna, you see, a respected elder. A rare thing these days for an old geezer to get respect, but thankfully it’s a Hawaiian custom.


The Mosquito Coast

I spent two years writing this novel—I knew that it was a good idea, and I felt inspired, though I was struggling financially. I didn’t get the Guggenheim Grant I applied for, so I did a lot of freelance writing to support myself. The book, fortunately, was a success. Filmmaker Peter Weir’s 1986 adaptation starring Harrison Ford was excellent. Along comes Apple Films and they hire a wonderful writer, Neil Cross, to reimagine the story as a multi-part TV series. It has the same spirit as the novel, but with many elaborations. My nephew Justin Theroux stars in it. I watch it with fascination and pleasure.

Under the Wave at Waimea

I have never surfed a big wave on a board, though I have surfed small waves with my outrigger. But the novel is really about aging, about an older big-wave surfer who has killed a homeless man on the road that winds around Waimea Bay. His life then seems to stall, he is dogged by bad luck, and his girlfriend realizes that he needs to discover the identity of the man he has killed—to care about that man. He does so, and the history of both men—both surfers—is in the book, which I see also as a story of redemption. It also reflects my experiences living on the North Shore for the past 30 years. 


As all watermen and waterwomen know, a day spent on the ocean—surfing, paddling, swimming—is not deducted from your life. I am technically an old man, but I don’t feel old. I feel vitalized by living near the ocean. Not just the smack and tang of the sea, but I feel bathed in marine sunlight. When I moved to Hawaii I realized that I hated to be indoors writing all day, so early on I began looking for a quiet place on the beach to set up a folding chair, to write. I always write in longhand, and being outdoors I feel absolutely free. I guess that has saved my sanity, improved my writing, and my commitment to being a fresh-air fiend.