Review: The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn

The Dogs of Winter

On the basis of John Williams’ descriptions, as described in a previous review, I put Kem Nunn on my list of authors to look for. This led me first to Tijuana Straits and then to his earlier The Dogs of Winter, which are the second and third in a trilogy of surf novels beginning with Tapping the Source which, not unexpectedly, John Williams describes as “surfing noir”.

The story is about Jack Fletcher, a clapped-out surf photographer, who is given a last chance to capture shots of a legendary surfer, Drew Harmon, and a mystical surf break – Heart Attacks – in the cold, isolated and shark-ridden waters of Northern California. The magazine funding the venture sends along a couple of younger surfers, to help the saleability of any shots. The tale of the journey north from Los Angeles reflects the change from a known world to a place that is murky, uncomfortable and confused, climatically, physically, socially and morally. In this world Indian tribes feud over fishing rights and are at odds with the white man, preferring to deal in drugs, violence and memories of past traditions. At the heart of the action is a past murder, and it is the responses of Drew and his wife Kendra to this event, and the consequent impact on Jack Fletcher, and Travis, who works for the Indian Council, which drives the story. This involves other deaths, some leading to guilt and consequences, all leading to pain.

I’m not sure where I am on Kem Nunn. This book ends with a six-line sentence:

But then, he had come to the belief that all things were so ordered, from the steps a man took in time, to the tracks of a storm, the likes of which came with the season, exchanging their energies with that of a frigid and turbulent sea, and thereby raising waves as if they were themselves some variation on God’s erring Wisdom and so able to labor their passion into matter.


There are also some egregious errors in syntax – “wretched” when he means “retched”; “throws” for “throes”, etc.

There is the requisite mindless violence and cruelty that makes us despair about human beings. There is a lot of going to and from A to B to C in remote and difficult places, that does seem to go on a bit. But in due course, the bits do all come together – after a fashion – and the characters do end up in a different – and possibly better – place by the end.

However, when he’s writing about the waves and the sea, Nunn is powerful and compelling in conveying the magic and challenge that keeps surfers going back (and I don’t mean the turgid prose quoted above). Other kinds of magic are hinted at as the denouement is reached and the moral dilemmas resolved – sort of.

Tijuana Straits has a lot of similarities in the plot and character (and killer break) – old surfer has another chance, meets girl, helps girl deal with very nasty men, and by doing so helps himself – but its in a warmer climate. Whether he gets the girl, in either book, I won’t say, but remember, this is “noir”.

So, if I see another Kem Nunn I’ll probably read it, but he’s not up there at the top of my list.

Details: Publisher: Scribner ISBN-10: 0671793349 ISBN-13: 978-0671793340

Other books by Kem Nunn – Pomona Queen, Unassigned Territory, Tapping the Source, Tijuana Straits.


7 Responses to Review: The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn

  1. […] beginning of Kem Nunn’s “surfing noir” novels. The others are The Dogs of Winter, previously reviewed, and Tijuana Straits. I was pleased that I did persist with Kem Nunn, and I can see why this book […]

  2. Cris Holler says:

    I was wondering if u could help me out? im doing a report that requires this to be ralated to surfing and the environment. how do u think this book relates top that? thanks

  3. Hugh McPhail says:

    I guess the book could be related to the environment in two ways. The first is through the impact of the outside world on the environment of Northern California and the relationship and balance that the Hupa and other nations had with their environment. There is an imbalance, which has led to alienation and the kinds of criminal activities we see in “Tapping the Source” and which are seen mainly through the eyes of Travis. The second relationship with the environment could be seen in the comparison between the purity and simplicity of the action of surfing – being part of the sea – and the issues that we have created in our lives that lead to violence and degradation of people and places. In the end the sea wins, the silent gray fellow waiting out there found Drew Harmon, the others, like Fletcher have a better appreciation and understanding of the value of the land and the need for balance with it.

  4. vince says:

    i am also doing a report on kem nunn and his two novels, Dogs of Winter and Tijuana Straights. I was wondering if you coudl help me find out how kem uses landscape as meaning? thanks

    • Hugh McPhail says:

      It’s a while since I read the read the books and wrote the review so I’m not sure if I could add much to what I have already written. It might be possible to equate the landscape – dense forest, cliffs, rocks in Northern California; desert, dunes, scrub, rivers in Southern California; the dangerous, moving sea in both cases – to the equally dangerous world of personal relationships that the characters must deal with. We have to pick our way through personal relationships and life events, just as the landscapes in the books can be both fixed and changing. It might be helpful to have a look at the adjectives that Nunn uses in describing the landscapes to see if there are some common themes in each book to help establish the meaning he ascribes to landscapes.

  5. Hmm it appears like your website ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any tips and hints for rookie blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate it.

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