At HTMLGIANT there’s a brief appreciation for Kem Nunn’s classic surf novel Tapping the Source. It’s a great book to escape with, in these cold winter months.
Tapping the Source is about a kid from inland California who leaves home in search of his sister. Out on the coast, he falls in with a dangerous crew of bad-boy surfers who might know where she is. The book is exciting precisely because it’s rather rough and amateurish—not quite a detective story, not quite a literary meditation on the thrill of surfing, it’s fundamentally a predictable type of bildungsroman. But it’s keenly observed and deeply felt, especially for a debut, and especially for a book that probably qualifies as a “thriller.”
Kem Nunn’s writing gets better as the trilogy goes on—through TheDogs of Winter and Tijuana Straits—even as his focus shifts away from surfing, toward local atmosphere and strong characters. The immediate legacy of his “surf noir” style is simply the availability of surf culture as a backdrop for formulaic detective stories, like Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow. And of course, Tapping the Source was the loose inspiration for Point Break.
Tapping the Source approaches the wild expanse of surfing through conventional literary forms. And this works so well because surfing—even though it’s an exhilarating rush and a fascination American subculture—doesn’t come with a built-in narrative. It’s a solitary pursuit with no clear goals. People surf because it takes them to a place beyond society, beyond self-examination, beyond words. It has none of the raw material of a narrative. That’s why, with the notable exception of Daniel Duane’s memoir Caught Inside, nonfiction books about surfing tend to suck. They may contain beautiful passages about riding a certain wave, but they can never live up to the feel of actually doing it, and they have no meaning to impart from the ineffable realm of wave-riding. Nonfiction about surfing always ends in a narcissistic rant about some old guy’s favorite waves.
We’ve had some good new stories about surfing lately. The title story in Doug Dorst’s collection The Surf Guru (read it here) moves the focus from the beach to the mind of a retired surfing legend. Here, surfing is not an indescribable adrenaline rush, but the accumulation of a lifetime of accomplishments and regrets.
And the new king of the surf novel is the Australian writer Tim Winton, whose novel Breath combines the coming-of-age and wave-worship aspects of Tapping the Source without any of the formulaic detective work. Also, Winton offers a buttload of superb writing. That always helps.