In general, surf fiction is a hit or miss proposition. Pick the wrong the book and you’ll find yourself cringing with embarrassment. At its worst, surf fiction tends to be an uncomfortable mix of cliché, metaphysical surf-cult babble, and overly self-conscious descriptions of the act of surfing. Interestingly, big-wave surfing is particularly susceptible to being reduced to pure melodrama. With so much garbage out there, seekers of intelligent surf fiction can be forgiven for never venturing beyond the non-fiction section of their local book store.
Fortunately, there are a handful of excellent surf fiction books available to avid readers, and in my opinion, none can match Kem Nunn, surfing’s Dark Lord of fiction, for well-written surf noir.
Nunn, a surfer now living in Laguna Beach, has been writing for solid fiction for years. He has a flair for crafting dark characters who become embroiled in even darker situations.
Three of his novels—The Dogs of Winter, Tapping the Source, and Tijuana Straits—are the best examples of Nunn’s work. Each of these books skillfully combine well-written characters, tense plot lines, seedy environments, and yes, surfing.
If you enjoy reading and haven’t had the pleasure of dipping into one of Nunn’s books, you have time to order them before your summer begins. Get on it.
Tapping the Source
This is a gem from Kem Nunn that manages to artfully blend a story from seemingly unrelated elements: Surf-culture, white trash, drug dealing and decadent wealth. The lead character, Ike Tucker, is an inland empire loser with a gift for repairing motorcycles. After getting word that his sister has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, our hero goes to a late 1970’s Huntington Beach to follow a lead. Tucker manages to befriend a biker who, in classic Nunn style, is also a tormented yet epic surfer. The narrative steadily draws Tucker and the reader through the seedy underbelly of HB, finally climaxing at a decadent ceremony held at a thinly veiled version of the Ranch. Tapping the Source apparently became the inspiration for the horrific move, Point Break. But, unlike that campy piece of garbage, Tapping the Source eloquently riffs on the surfing’s darker side. This one is an easy read on the beach.
In Kem Nunn’s fifth book, lead character Sam Fahey is an ex-con and ex-surfer who now runs a worm farm. Yes, a worm farm. Sounds ridiculous, but once again Kem Nunn manages to craft a story and characters that are completely credible, while at the same time will have you shaking your head in disbelief. In the book, Fahey is on the trail of a pack of feral dogs near Tijuana when he comes upon a disoriented Mexican woman stumbling across the dunes near the beach at Tijuana Straits. Fahey winds up helping the woman, nursing her back to health while inadvertently inheriting a world of hurt from south of the border, This is a really well written thriller that, like most of Nunn’s work, manages to successfully weave a variety of topical threads through the story. Characters move through feelings of lost innocence, vengeance, redemption and further loss, all under a backdrop of a border driven by dreams, greed, corruptness and, oddly enough, love. This is a great summer read on the beach accompanied by a shot or two of stiff tequila.
The Dogs of Winter
Like Tijuana Straits, Kem Nunn’s The Dogs of Winter centers around a tormented and disillusioned surfer-icon struggling to come to grips with the world. The novel adopts the cold, dark and menacing tone of its Pacific Northwest setting and crafts a tale that harkens back to the more romantic days of large surf and even larger surfers. This is my favorite of Nunn’s books and one that chock full of creepy characters, conflicted heroes and tragic accidents. This also is a good book for the beach, particularly if it’s winter and the beach is foggy, cold and wild.