By Michael Leidemann / Special to the Star-Bulletin
Nov 30, 2008
"A High and Beautiful Wave"
By John Wythe White
History is a hard thing to know, especially if you are living in the
midst of it, the late Hunter S. Thompson liked to say about the
1960s. Only time could tell if that period would be historic.
John Wythe White's first novel is about that time, the '60s, and
about all that's passed since. It's about Hawaii then and now, and
whether we can make any sense of the time in between.
As the book opens in the present day, Oakley, a college English
teacher on the mainland, gets a calling card from his past. Thirty
years before, on the first day of a memorable stay on Kauai, a young
woman had stolen his camera out of a rental car trunk; now, she wants
to return it -- in person.
This is the structure White uses to tell two or more stories -- of a
life then and now. It's a tricky technique, but White, a longtime
freelance writer in Hawaii, is more than up to the task; the book has
a nice style, fast pace, and enough adventures in both time worlds to
keep you turning the pages.
Most of the story is set in a real-life place: Taylor Camp, a
counter-culture village of tents, tree houses and free spirits that
sprung up at the end of the road to Kauai's North Shore in the late
'60s and early '70s. For a few short years, until state officials
cracked down, Taylor Camp was (depending on your view) an idyllic
nature retreat and sanctuary filled with peace-seeking hippies trying
to find themselves, or a camp for lost souls who thrived on drugs,
orgies and music in the woods. All without modern plumbing.
Oakley arrives in the camp (without his camera) as a disillusioned
lover, teacher and draft dodger, finding enough interesting
characters to keep him there. There's an old girlfriend now sharing a
tree house with his best friend; a guitar-playing fellow named
Soundtrack, who's taken a vow of silence unless his words come out in
song; a self-styled Zen master with a penchant for controlling
people; an Army deserter being hunted by military police and other
Despite the weirdness, they all have the ring of truth to them, which
is a compliment to White's writing skills. While Oakley is trying to
work out his own problems and place in the world, he builds his own
camp, enjoys good sex and surf, does lots of drugs, and generally
worries about where his life is headed.
Meanwhile, the modern-day Oakley has flown back to Kauai and is
trying to recollect how it really was back then. He's still trying to
figure out his own life and whether those days in the '60s were just
a diversion or something momentous for him and the world's history.
Which brings us back to Hunter Thompson. White's title is taken from
a chapter in Thompson's book, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." In
the passage, which Thompson said was perhaps his best writing; he
describes the thrill of being part of the '60s counterculture. "There
was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was
right, that we were winning. ... We were riding the crest of a high
and beautiful wave."
By the time Thompson was writing "Fear and Loathing" five years
later, though, the magic moment and all its potential had come and
gone: "Now you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West,
and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water
mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
Thirty years later, Oakley can't even see the high water mark from a
storm that almost washed away his home in Taylor Camp. He spends
several days tromping around the woods, but mostly what he finds are
tourists, sunbathers and rental cars in what is now a state park.
They are in fine contrast to many of the '60s and '70s icons that
White invokes so well: the music, the anti-war protests, spiritual
quests and drug experimentation that defined the era.
Ultimately, Oakley does find closure of a sort on Kauai and there's a
terrific summing up of where of where all his Taylor Camp buddies are
today. It may or may not be history, but it's a story and time worth