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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'
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on 11 September 2000
Possibly the best book I have ever read. The first surfing novel I have ever read. Amazingly true to life descriptions of the sport. I also liked the way it tackled other aspects of life in Huntington Beach apart from the surfing. A true eye-opener to the whole Californian surf culture.
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on 19 January 2003
I found this novel well written, carefully plotted and with good characterisation. It's basically a coming of age story which uses surfing and early 1980s californian slacker lifestyle to show the growth of the main character over the course of a summer. I liked the way it was difficult to gauge the level of threat implied behind the sinister goings on - for example, has ike's sister been murdered or has she just wondered off. You don't find out until near the end. I did, however, have two main problems with it: firstly, the novel has suffered slightly because it seems to be very much of its time (this is a problem you often get with fiction which is a few years old but set in the present) - i had to really think about what early 80s california must have been like - it seems to me with hindsight a kind of a dark hidden and not very well know period - after the beach boys era of californian surf but sort of pre- mtv/baywatch sanitised generation. I think because of this the novel has become more of an historical piece of literature than perhaps the author intended or could have forseen - with the advantage of historical hindsight it seems like it could only have been set in a few years in the early 80s. When you have this sort of situation with a novel which has been around for a few years you usually expect a foreword inserted by the author to give an historical perspective and i think this would help here. You definately can't read it as though it was written in 2003. Another problem with this novel (and through absolutely no fault of its own) is the influence its had on other writers - i can think of 3 or 4 novels which have really copied from it, for example, the Beach, and a lot of Bret Easton Ellis - especially Glamorama. I think this became more apparent toward the end of the novel and the conculsion felt a bit contrived because of this. Overall though a good read.
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on 19 June 2014
Somewhat mystified by the overwhelmingly positive reviews here, this was a massive waste of time, I just wish someone had given me a heads-up beforehand. All fairly unbelievable, plot wise, full of far fetched scenarios (none more so than the set piece at the end, which is so daft its almost comical) and one dimensional cliches passing for characters - troubled bad boy biker Preston is a Vietnam vet, is he? Wow, original. Do yourself a favour and swerve this nonsense.
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on 7 March 2013
What a find! Couldn't stop reading it. Great to discover this cult classic surf noir set right in Southern California!
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on 8 May 2001
While a little depressing 'tapping the source' charts a teen ages search for his missing sister from the desert to a seedy surf town, and beyond the beach into the sea. As well as surfing he discovers a world of bikers, drugs and pornography, into which he falls enjoying and excesses and for a while forgetting the purpose of his trip. While essentially a right of passage book the author maintains your interest with a number of twists and turns some fairly subtle and some more brutal. The sleazy side of the surf town makes for colorful backdrop to the main story line. It would be almost impossible to describe the feeling that learning to catch waves can invoke, the book focuses on the effect that surfing has on the other aspects of his life as this wave riding skills develop.
While its no substitute for paddling out and catching a few , when its blown out, flat or just to dam cold you could do a lot worst than settle down for a few hours with this book.
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on 6 March 2006
wow i really dont read to often, but i totally enjoyed reading this book. i'm from the east coast and it gives a totally new perspective on the west coast. i've never been there...yet. i just lost the book. i only have 75 (about not sure) pages left. im about to purchase another copy, unless i find my copy. thanks, Jay mountz
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VINE VOICEon 5 November 2003
I found this book a very absorbing read. The plot is well thought out and this keeps you gripped as you search for the answers. I was on a surf trip while reading it and found myself picking it up every spare moment I had even just to read the next couple of pages.
I agree with the coments from the other reviewer about the historical context of this novel and you should bear this in mind as you read, because the picture it paints of California at that time is very good.
Recommended
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