Breath by Tim Winton: Picador, 2008
Set in his native Australia, Tim Winton’s eighth novel begins with a veteran paramedic and a novice paramedic arriving on the scene of a young boy's suicide by hanging—or is it suicide? The mother has already cut the boy down and cleaned him up. The veteran paramedic, our narrator Pikelet, knows the boy did not intentionally hang himself. It was a sexual act, involving near asphyxiation, that went wrong. I was all set for a completely different kind of novel than what followed, which turned out to be a novel of surfing and extreme sport, jumping back to our narrator's early boyhood days (age 11- 14) in the 1970s. And this is where it stays until the book nearly reaches its end.
Young boys Pikelet and his friend Looney (one year older) are daredevils, staying submerged under water for nearly two minutes in order to scare the hell out of tourists. But it is Looney who is really the one who seeks any kind of dare—often daring to be dared—and backs down at nothing.
The two boys live in a little town of “millers and loggers and dairy farmers” where not much happens; Pikelet's father works at the local mill. One day the two boys, who sneak off to watch the surfers at the beach, see an older guy, age 36 as it turns out, who takes to the water with a grace and confidence they have never seen. This is Sando, who, the boys will later learn, was a world famous surfer—and kind of still is although he keeps a low profile in the area. Sando and his standoffish American partner Eva live near the beach in a funky clapboard hippie house hidden in the foliage but with a magnificent view of the ocean. They never work, except to tend a garden, smoke lots of hash, and remain apart from society. (How this is possible we find out later.)
Before long, Pikelet and Looney fall under Sando's spell, and Sando, seeing they have daring, even on their pitiful Styrofoam boards, takes them under his wing, becoming a guru of sorts while they in turn compete for his attention.
Sando begins taking the boys to greater and more challenging surfing areas. First there is Old Smokey—a reef bank a mile offshore, which is highly risky; then comes Barney, a hidden bay of good surfing that is inhabited by Barney, a great white shark. Last is the Nautilus, a ship-wrecking rock that throws up treacherous and unpredictable ugly waves, an extremely dangerous area that only someone slightly unhinged would undertake. How both Sando and the boys handle these extreme surfing challenges is telling of their characters, and the adventures make for riveting reading.
Later, when Sando takes off for the high waves of Indonesia with Looney in tow, Pikelet begins hanging around the house though he doesn't much like Eva, who has an unfriendly manner partly due to a limp she acquired from an accident in her area of extreme skiing. These two make an odd couple indeed, but in the absence of Sando they cling to each other, and Eva, no longer a sports competitor, pulls the young Pikelet into an altogether new and dangerous realm of fear. “I miss being afraid,” she tells him, and bringing on fear is something she knows a little about.
I don’t wish to give away anymore of the plot although the opening chapter clearly indicates a kinky direction to come. Suffice it to say that the author expertly emerges the reader into the dangers and the rapture of the extreme surfing world. The surfing sites themselves are vividly described and take on a characterization of their own. It also captures the rivalry between the two boys, and squarely nails the aging, aloof Sando—a man needing his disciples as much as they need him. It is, too, a coming-of-age novel, but not in the standard way to be sure.
A couple of hesitations: I am not all that enamored of the set-up of the novel, bracketed by the older narrator's life, and a rapid-fire conclusion in which we learn in one burst all that happened to the principal characters (and not enough about our narrator). And the theme of breath may be a bit labored—holding one's breath under water until you can see stars, as they young boys do, and all the breath-related themes/passages to come. But these hesitations aside, the latter of which especially might just be my own, I found the novel fascinating. It thoroughly explores the role of fear as a means to feel alive. For some people. I also loved the way the young Pikelet first described the surfers he sees: “How strange it was to see men do something beautiful, something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.” The author's occasional turns of lyricism carry us nicely. It is an engrossing read, was hard to put down, and I will long remember it, which is saying a lot as surfing holds about as much interest for me as televised billiards; that’s how strong the narrative undertow is. J.A.
Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly: Knopf, Canada, 2009
Our protagonist in Canadian journalist Elizabeth Kelly’s debut novel is Collie Flanagan, one of two sons of the obscenely wealthy and eccentric Flanagan family who live on the island of Martha's Vineyard. The father, known as Pop, never works (mum has all the money), drinks continually and womanizes, but is darkly witty and articulate at all times except when he's passed out. Mum is a political activist with an acid tongue, often putting up groups of socialists and anarchists in her posh home. As Collie says of her, she preaches her politics—gives away tons of money because she has it—but doesn't practice it herself. Collie's younger brother Bingo is a wild-ass and gets kicked out of one prep school after another though the money machine behind this family—the mum's father, Falcon—always bails him out of trouble. The last member of this bizarre clan is Uncle Tom (Pop's brother), who is equally loopy albeit also sharp and witty, and in lieu of work enjoys the odd hobby of raising racing pigeons.
Falcon (real name Peregrine Lowell) is a media mogul—sort of a Rupert Murdock type—and lives in a huge Hearst-style mansion. He rather favors the bland Collie, who does well in school and is the only one who appears “normal”; while mum favors Bingo and seems to hate Collie simply because she had wanted a girl and because he was born on the day JFK was shot. Mum also hates her father (whom she accuses of killing her mother) though she accepts the huge amount of money from him that she lives on. She has nothing good to say and is actually quite cruel, especially to Collie, but no one is spared. As the author writes, referring to a typical evening: she attacks with a “verbal pitchfork. Before the night was over, just about everyone in the place had sprung leaks, blood and champagne spurting from all those glamorous human fountains,” which also shows the odd metaphorical style of the writing, which sometimes works to great effect and sometimes not (think Arundhati Roy).
Poor Collie has a hard time in this family, but gets through school with good grades (despite no help from the family), and tries to be protective of Bingo. Then one day a double tragedy strikes. Collie feels, as many others in the family and social circle feel, that he should have died as well even though an attempt to act would have meant certain death for him too, which he well knew.
From here on out we follow Collie trying to rebuild his life somehow. He engages in self-destructive behavior and later accepts a nun’s invitation to help the poor in El Salvador during the early 80s. This strange turn, straight into the heart of the El Salvadorian war, seems out of place with the rest of the novel. If this is about a young man’s attempt to assuage his guilt over the past, as it is meant to be, then it comes way too late in the novel, and ends far too abruptly. Suddenly our protagonist is back in the safety of the States as his life sails off in other peculiar directions, while my head was left reeling with thoughts of Oliver Stones’ Salvador, and wondering whatever happened to James Woods.
Well, the novel holds one’s attention, no doubt. But I have my hesitations apart from the above. Pop and Uncle Tom sound alike—way too articulate and witty for real people; in other words there is something false about them, ditto with the cruel mother and mogul grandfather. And although the plot revolves around Collie falling victim to one horrible twist of fate after another, it remains hard to get a real sense of him; one simply wonders what new horrible thing will happen to him next as the novel meanders in an uneven fashion. The aforementioned wit, however, almost makes it worthwhile—no, it does make it worthwhile although a really good novel would have the wit coming out of the mouths of more believable characters. At least it's not predictable in any way, and the author’s storytelling powers are strong and engaging. I look forward to reading her next. J.A.
© TBR 2009
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