Review: Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

4 November 2007

tapping_the_source1.jpgTapping the Source was written in 1984 and marked the 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 was a National Book Award First Fiction finalist. It is much better than its successors, with a plot and characters that are more sustainable.

The story is about a young man’s search for what all young men seek – his self. Ike Tucker leaves his life as a motorbike mechanic in the California desert to look for his sister. The only clues to where she might be come from a young surfer who says she was at Huntington Beach, went to Mexico with three men – Hound Adams, Terry Jacobs and Frank Baker – but didn’t come back. Ike sets off for Huntington Beach. He meets Preston, a former gun surfer, now a biker, who teaches Ike to surf and tries to steer him away from his quest (since, of course, he is bound up in it). Ike finds Hound Adams and the rest, and gets sucked into the violence, sex, drugs, porn and surfing scene of Huntington Beach. It turns out that Preston and Hound used to own a surf shop together, using the brand “Tapping the Source” on their boards for a while, but they made some bad moves, and bad friends, things went wrong, at least two girls died. Ike is heading downhill, but meets Michelle, and begins to realise that there is more.

It all comes together as the events reach a tragic climax – Ike recognises something about life and himself, and he finds the key that conclusively links his sister to the events that are unfolding:

It struck him this morning that what he was doing was not separated into different things. Paddling out, catching rides, setting up. Suddenly it was all one act, one fluid series of motions, one motion even. Everything coming together until it was all one thing: the birds, the porpoise, the leaves of seaweed catching sunlight through the water, all one thing and he was one with it. Locked in. Not just tapping the source, but of the source.

At this point, Ike recognises the wreckage of the dream that Preston and Hound had once had, but also that there is hope:

And he saw too that it was not just Preston and Hound who had lost. He thought of the pier, the crowds fighting for waves, the entire zoo of a town crouched on the sand and what had once passed as hunger and vitality had only a certain desperateness about it now, coked-out fatigue, because they had all lost and it was one great bummer, one long drop with no way back over the top. It was plain now, plainer than it had ever been before, what Preston had wanted him to see here. And he did see it. Preston had been right. There was something here, in this moment, that was worth hanging on to, that was worth building a life around. And he could see it within reach, if he could only break away now, if he could only go and take Michelle with him.

Ike does survive, thanks in part to having a tattoo, people die, not all of them nasties, and he starts to put his life back together, having resolved his quest. To my mind the writing is better than the later books – the magic of surfing is there in all of them, but in Tapping the Source the action is better conveyed and the focus on Ike to convey it makes for a better structure and more tension.

It would be possible to get all analytical and to draw parallels and extract metaphors from this novel about the way in which people screw up themselves and the world, but I think its best left as a good example of a coming-of-age novel, which first novels often are, and to recognise that its a good and effective example. With sufficient nastiness in it to make it noir.

Details: Publisher: Thunder’s Mouth Press ISBN-13: 978-1-56025-808-7 ISBN-10: 1-56025-808-X

Other books by Kem Nunn – Pomona Queen, Unassigned Territory, The Dogs of Winter, Tijuana Straits.

Review: The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn

8 September 2007

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.