Top positive review
Surf(ace) Noir: a Novel that Runs Deep...
on 13 June 2014
I've been aware of Kem Nunn for many years and finally (2014) got around to reading his first book, 'Tapping the Source'. For many years this book was published by No Exit, the very fine UK Indie publisher specialising in International Crime Fiction (mostly the good stuff- noir, hardboiled and existential, as opposed to anything cosy or overly procedural). Currently, the book is out of print in the UK, so I got myself a US import copy.
'Tapping the Source' has long been described as the 'original surf noir novel'. If the idea of a crime novel set around surfing seems odd to you, first of all, you need to understand that Noir (French for 'black' of course) is the tradition within and at the edges of crime fiction where it blurs into the mainstream novel. I'd argue that James M. Cain (a contemporary of Chandler and Hammett) is the original Noir writer, as he didn't write about detectives and cops, but the core of evil that lies within many ordinary people. The focus of the Noir novel is the criminal mentality. Noir frees the crime novel from the generic tropes of private detectives and cops and allows for an examination of morality and contingency that can be broader and closer to real life for those of us who aren't cops, don't know any cops, but have encountered wickedness and ill-luck in everyday life (which means most of us). For example, Charles Willeford's celebrated Noir novella 'The High Priest of California' features a bad guy protagonist who isn't really a crook in the usual sense, just an immoral, ruthless, selfish individual.
'Tapping the Source' is the story of Ike Tucker, a young man who has grown up in a desert hamlet in the USA, raised by an uncle and aunt. Ike's sister, a bit of a midnight girl in a sunset town, left Ike alone with his recalcitrant relatives two years earlier. Already abandoned by a father he never knew and a mother long gone, Ike feels a great sense of tracklessness when his sister leaves. Spending his time working on a bike that he one day hopes to ride out of the desert on, Ike receives an unexpected visitor, a young man who claims that three men who live at the oceanside town of Huntington Beach in California know what has happened to Ike's sister and where she has gone...
I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot, suffice to say that Ike's quest to discover his sisters whereabouts and/or fate lead him to the surfing community. Encountering outlaw bikers, hang-tenners, punk rock girls and other dangerous yet charismatic figures, Ike discovers surfing while trying to discover clues about the mystery he seeks to resolve...and by doing so, discovers himself, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, sometimes ambiguously. Gradually, Ike's experiences add up to a greater understanding - or at least suspicion - about what motivates him, his missing sister, the men and women he encounters. Also, we discover the heart of darkness that so often lies inside ourselves. This is the essence of great Noir fiction, the marrying of the existentialist credo with the basic framework of the crime novel.
Like all great Noir, the mystery element of the novel, while providing the superb, keep-you-guessing plot, is only one element of the book. Admittedly, it's a great element - I've read lots of crime novels, Noir classics, police procedurals and so on and I had no idea which way things would play out.There is little misdirection in the book, but a fabulous realism in which contingency - as it does in real life- plays a huge part in starting, stalling, re-starting and unveiling the plot. Nunn shows rather than tells, naturalistically, revealing a deft touch with characters and his third person use of Ike is always kept close to our protagonist, ensuring we identify with him as much as we would in a first person narrative.
And yes, the book is partially about Surfing. Being fairly non-physical myself (never been much of a sportsman, but, like all men, understanding the nature of obsession (existentialists often seek something that often remains elusive and outside our reach to give life meaning), I absolutely loved this very fine novel. Like other great books about obsessive, life-affirming, all-consuming pastimes, this book reaches into your psyche and trys to tap the source of what makes us strive and turn that tap on, pouring out the water of sheer experience and transcendence in the moments when everything just flows. In this sense, this book is like 'Climbers' (M. John Harrison (which is about climbing), 'Solo Faces' by James Salter (also about climbing) and 'The Sea on Fire' by Howard Cunnell (which is about scuba diving). It is, like these books, a true novel in that it derives from a notion, a novelty, but it develops that notion into a broad exploration of ideas and emotions- the kind of book that Melville used to write, in fact. Its balance between plot and action and an effortlessly, non-intrusive examination of philosophical ideas without the footnotes is testament to Nunn's genius.
It almost goes without saying that anyone who likes Hemingway, Beat Literature and its antecedents, rock and roll culture, the history of subcultures per se (even sporting ones), and even philosophy and religion, will find this fascinating. A lot more than the film 'Big Wednesday', this book made me want to don shorts, pull the Hollister hoodie out for those cool moments around the strand fire at night and learn how to shoot the tube. But don't think this is some Beach Boys fantasy - reading 'Tapping the Source' is a lot more like listening to The Doors than Brian Wilson.
Entertaining if you just want a good story, yet shot through with some very deep stuff - especially the brilliant, brilliant ending (which is one of the finest denouements I've encountered in any novel - the last three words have a huge impact that spell out the myseteries which have stretched Ike and the reader on their respective quests and revealed some things niether might have wanted to acknowledge), 'Tapping the Source' is an amazing read, a lot more than the sum of its parts. Supposedly the inspiration for 'Point Break', a film I've never seen which sounds pretty cheesy (its plot is very different to this novel as far as I can tell from wikipedia's entry on the film), 'Tapping the Source' is a novel everyone interested in great writing should read.
Stephen E. Andrews, author, '100 Must Read Books For Men'