This is a very fine book, one that seems to work and, yes, breathe within a familiar set-up and structure, doing really well, and then it opens up and becomes something else, something surprising, darker and troubling, encompassing a much larger view of life than one expects. In the end it’s not much at all like what it seemed at first, and it is a highly accomplished, deeply resonant work, properly honored and celebrated.
There’s a prologue of sorts in which the mature, midlife narrator is an EMT, a man who has seen too much, and he seems extra understanding at the scene of a suicide where the family has cleaned things up before he and his partner could arrive. There’s not a lot of mystery, but more than enough to launch us into the narrator’s search into his past.
And the book, advertised to me as “favorite surfing novel,” jumps into a familiar story of growing up near water (a river) and not too far from the beach, coming of age within the rhythms of rising swells and waves breaking offshore. The narrator, just 13 or even younger when the story begins, meets his daredevil, “hellboy” best friend/mate when Looney is scaring girls by diving and handing onto submerged tree roots in the river. Together they meet and befriend Sando, a 30-something retired surfing legend, a guru mentor seemingly evolved from the Big Kahuna of the origianl Beach Party surfing movies (Cliff Robertson?). But this book is much more, extremely well-written and carefully conceived, and even as the familiar elements of a 70s boyhood beachside idyll are put in place, they’re all real and detailed, if not exactly new. the charge and interest and freshness come from the singularity of the coastal Australian setting, along with the engaging language that goes with it.
The book looks like it’s going in a familiar direction, as I said, describing the joys and struggles of learning to surf and becoming expert, seeing out bigger waves and facing fear. At the same time there’s a keen sense of time and place, going to high school and finding one’s way in the 70s, with the generation gap and occasional hippy moments, all of it carefully measured, more like hints and accents and background colors, never force or extraneous, always muted. Looney has a screw loose, as his name suggest, and if I was going to guess I would have said that the path of the story, with its foreshadowing accidents, was going to lead to a climax of danger and risk and a defining accident and loss, that Looney, out of control and on the edge, would go through a horrible crack up, and the question would be who would go down with him. But the story defies this expectation.
As the narrator and Looney bond with Sando, his wife Eva enters as a slightly bitter, insignificant player in the background. There are early hints of some sort of backstory, but they’re doled out sparingly. The story turns as the narrator steps back from taking the bigger risks, passing on a dangerous break that exhilerates Sando and that Looney rides eagerly. It’s not so much a rejection, as it is Looney moving on with Sando, pushing to new extremes. The book is careful to make clear that these events are taking place before “the extreme” was a category of sport and adventure and risk, before it had a name: this is when it was being defined and explored, Sando bringin the old school skill and savvy, using the boys’ youtful energy to push past old limits. the story also does a good job of establishing the apt perspective of yout, as Sando is “the old man” who is all of 35, and his wife Eva is 25. We slowly realize that whatever it was like to be 15 or 16 in the mid-70s (like I was), or 35, the real no man’s land might have been the mid-20s, Eva’s age.
Sando takes Looney surfing in Indonesia and Thailand, and the story turns as the young narrator begins a dark affair with Eva. We get her story, and some of Sando’s background, and discover that she was an early 70s freestyle skier, inventing something completely new. She blew out her knee, so now she’s cut off from the thrill-seeking life that originally bonded her and Sando, the world he’s still compelled to explore with Looney. So Eva is a refugee from a state where people live beyond fear, and she no longer feels alive.
This book gets very deep and interesting at this point, tying together its scenes and loose ends in ways that were surprising, to me at least. Auto-asphyxiation and sex are connected to the seemingly innocent early scenes of Looney and narrator holding onto the submerged tree roots in the river, wxploring how breat is the essence of life, and what it’s like at the edge of breath’s cessation. Waht’s marvelous is the connection that Winton makes between this juncture of life and death and surfing, and how the hellboys who pursue the extreme on big waves and elsewhere are driven to live in a way that’s different from what we know.
The other surprise here is that this is really a story of reflection and middle age, rather than a boy’s surfing story. Living life on the edge has a steep cost, and the narrator is damaged as he enters adulthood and builds a life, finding it necessary to fall apart time and again and ultimately he can only hold the pieces of his self together the simplest, softest manner–except when chasing a crisis. He knows how to manage a clean up and a crack up, but that’s all that he can handle; he isn’t capable of having relationships. There’s a sketchy record of thirty years of fragmentation, while characters like Looney and Eva wash up on the beach like so much dead driftwood. Rather than an idyllic remembrance of an active and sport-driven adolescence, the novel expands to consider how the life of those days has slowly played itself out, how we never recover from the loss of hope and innocence suffered at that particular crosscurrent of time.
Winton has written a great and haunting book here, and a quick glance appears to confirm the obvious, that he’s an accomplished writer with a more than solid body of work, and an author that I believe I will heartily enjoy. I didn’t know about the Miles Franklin Award, for the best Australian novel or play, but Breath marked the fourth time that Winton has won it. Glad to have read this book, and very happy about getting to know this fine writer.