Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Surf Is (Usually) Mightier Than The Pen

It's my first day at Apollo Elementary, named in honor not of the god but, like so much else in (Florida), the space program. Seen from a surfboard a few years later, the match-like flame of a rocket pulsing upward into the sky from Cape Canaveral will be as banal as a rainbow, remarkable at best for how unremarkable it has become. - On A Wave, Thad Ziolkowski.

How's that for surfer perspective? He's sitting on a board in the ocean, thinking the guy being shot into orbit is banal! Yes, Thad Ziolkowski's surf memoir, On A Wave, is the real deal. He successfully evokes an adolescence which is endured, possibly even salvaged, by surfing. He comes of age in all the expected ways, and his final farewell to surfing is heart-rending and realistic: surfing has served its purpose, but can take him no further into maturity. By book's end, he intimates with a gentle gravitas just how painful his adulthood becomes - a stunning evolutionary leap in surfer prose.

Most surfer prose is the literary equivalent of The Endless Summer - not much depth in those waters, I'm afraid. It started with Frederick Kohner's Gidget - arguably one of the first (and better) "young adult" novels - and pretty much drowned in the depths of oblivion after that.

Until Kem Nunn took hold of it.

I am among the legion of Kem Nunn fans whose appreciation of his first novel, Tapping The Source, goes way beyond...well..."appreciation". I manage to re-read it every year, and every year I manage to enjoy it. That's damning praise for the writer, unfortunately. He's published three books since, and they've all received praise from the professionals, but I doubt their combined sales have netted him the same income or interest that Tapping has. It's possible the other titles have even scored him one or two appreciative letters, but judging from the sort of ground-level praise you see on Amazon, I'm guessing Tapping The Source is still generating a steady stream of fan-mail.

That's because, with Tapping The Source, Nunn got the mix exactly right - deep fried noir-nutrition, with a magical blend of 11 herbs & spices. It has a plot (kewl!) involving a sexually and religiously confused loser (named "Ike"!) hopelessly adrift in late adolescence. A stranger rides into Ike's desert village, and delivers ominous word about his missing sister, and before you can say "Wipeout" Ike finds himself in Huntington Beach, California - completely in over his head among bikers, drug addicts, porno film-makers, a dark cult of some kind - and surfers. By novel's end, the best that can be said about Ike is, he's learned to surf.

My summary makes Nunn's efforts look like camp, but Nunn treats it all with plain-spoken earnestness. He deals directly with the horrible questions that adolescence brings. 1) Are you a loser? (Yes) 2) Sexuality: "Are you," to quote Jimi, "experience?" (Weeeeell...) 3) Is the world a threatening place? (And how!) 4) So ... can you surf?

Coming-of-age narratives all require an element of transgression: to become an adult, to win the heart of the princess, your first step is to break the law. Ike learns how to transgress, and even develops a bit of an appetite for it. It's when he discovers how much he's endangered the lives of people he cares for that he begins to demonstrate maturity. Conversely, Huntington Beach seems mired in corruption until Ike shows up. As he is transformed, his change seems to provoke transformation in others around him - not always to his benefit.

I think Tapping The Source is the best surf-narrative there is. It's been called "Surf Noir", which it is, but it's chiefly a coming-of-age tale (a very violent one at that), and anything beyond that is weight the vehicle cannot bear. Nunn took a stab at it, though, 13 years later with The Dogs Of Winter, employing many of the same elements, but mixing it up a bit with mid-life issues. Dogs begins promisingly, but spins apart by the end: you get the feeling that surfing can't hope to buoy the larger complexities that come with adulthood.

No, it's best to just forget that stuff for the moment. Catch a wave, and you're sitting on top of the world.

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