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.