Paul Theroux is not so much a travel writer as a diarist on the move. As he demonstrated in such books as The Iron Rooster, an account of a railway journey across China, he is concerned not just with creating absorbing word pictures—which he does surpassingly well—but also with the minutiae of social behavior, culinary traditions and political mores. In what is probably his most ambitious peregrination yet, he crisscrosses a Pacific triangle defined roughly by Australia in the west, Hawaii in the north and Easter Island in the east. Theroux wanders sometimes on foot—through New Zealand's Fiordland, for instance, "one of the world's last real wildernesses"—but as often as possible by collapsible kayak. In it he paddles his way to a Crusoe-like sojourn on the desert is land of Pau, skims past blowholes at the foot of Easter Island cliffs and frolics with dolphins off Kaua'i's Na Pali coast.
But though Theroux revels in slicing through lonely lagoons and sleeping on isolated beaches, he can't resist exercising his talent for distilling the essence of a place through its human denizens and their quaint, sometimes off-putting ways. In Oceania he scrutinizes the high and the (literally) mighty, like the voluminous King of Tonga ("a sort of Pacific island version of Jabba the Hutt from The Empire Strikes Back"), and such humbler mortals as Tonganese Enna, who proposes to him while gathering sea slugs. And being querulous as well as questing, Theroux finds an underside to the Pacific paradise manifest in the growing economic dominion of Japan, the cynical tyranny of French nuclear testing, and the near ubiquity of Spam. Nevertheless, the cumulative impression of experiencing Oceania through Theroux's penetrating gaze is exhilarating, sometimes, as he himself puts it, "joyous." (Putnam, $24.95)