Thursday, January 13, 2022

the last book I read

Breath by Tim Winton.

Bruce Pike and his best mate Ivan Loon (Pikelet and Loonie to their friends, who basically comprise each other) are a pair of young larrikins in their early teens living in a smallish community on the west coast of Australia. Not much to do, and the only obvious source of fun and adventure is the huge waves that break just off the coast, so the boys take up surfing, and soon discover a taste for it and its attendant thrills and danger.

The boys aren't out in the waves on their own, though; there's a group of adult surfers from the nearby larger town of Angelus who warily allow the boys to share their patch. More intriguingly there's also a lone surfer known as Sando, clearly head and shoulders above anyone else in terms of ability, who doesn't associate with the group much but takes a shine to Pikelet and Loonie's youthful enthusiasm and becomes a sort of mentor, allowing them to store their boards under his house and offering some surf tuition and hippy-ish surf-related life philosophy. Think of Patrick Swayze in Point Break, but without the robbing banks while dressed as Ronald Reagan, and indeed without the shooting your gun in the air and going AAAAAAARRRGGHH

Pikelet and Loonie tag along with Sando on a series of expeditions to ever gnarlier waves, some in secret locations that only Sando seems to know about. A bit of a rivalry develops, for bragging rights over who has surfed the biggest waves but also for Sando's approval. The boys spend a lot of time hanging out at Sando's place and meeting his American wife Eva, who isn't wholly impressed with her husband taking on a couple of teenage disciples and is intermittently grumpy and sedated from painkillers for a gammy knee.

Pikelet comes up against the limits of his courage when Sando takes the boys to surf an astonishingly dangerous wave just about covering some spiky rocks a few miles offshore, and after Loonie steps up and surfs it he and Sando go off on an expedition to Indonesia for several weeks without telling either Pikelet or Eva much about it. Pikelet does some surfing on his own and mooches around the house in Eva's slightly reluctant company before the two of them decide to move the plot along by getting down to some serious fucking. This is obviously tremendously exciting for Pikelet, not to mention wholly inappropriate and rapey on Eva's part as he is barely fifteen.

We learn a little more about Eva's background here: she was a highly-rated freestyle skier before landing awkwardly off a jump and crocking her knee, something several bouts of surgery and painful rehabilitation have subsequently failed to correct. So her and Sando moved away from snowy ski country to avoid her being reminded of what she was missing every day - on the other hand, hey, here they are near the beach and she has to watch Sando and the boys head off to get their daily dose of adrenaline and peril every day. No wonder she's a bit grumpy. Moreover, she has to find danger in other ways, as Pikelet discovers when she produces a plastic bag and a rope from a cupboard and asks him to throttle her during sex.

But all good things must come to an end, even bracingly transgressive and dangerous under-age sex: Sando is due to return and Eva turns out to be pregnant. She assures Pikelet that he isn't the father, though the timelines are left too vague for the reader to be able to work out whether she's lying or not. When Sando eventually does return (seemingly without cottoning on to what's been happening in his absence) it is without Loonie who seemingly did a runner mid-trip to who knows what murky corner of south-east Asia. 

Sando and Eva pack up and relocate back to America to await the arrival of the baby and we zoom back to the framing device featuring a middle-aged Pikelet, now a paramedic, a divorcee and father to two grown-up girls. Sando has become a millionaire surf merchandise magnate and lifestyle guru, while Eva and Loonie are both dead, Loonie in some drug-related shooting in Mexico, and Eva in a somewhat undignified Hutchence/Carradine-style naked hanging mishap in a hotel in Oregon. Pikelet himself alludes darkly to some addictive risk-taking behaviour of his own in the past, though it's not clear whether this is the reason for his divorce. Anyway, as we leave him he seems to have come to terms with his life by helping others continue theirs, occasionally by having him rescue them from some of the same risky behaviour that got him and his friends into trouble in the first place.

The first thing to say here is that Tim Winton is one of my favourite authors and I enjoyed this very much, just as I enjoyed all the other books of his that I've read (Shallows, Cloudstreet, The Riders and Dirt Music). Like many coming-of-age stories it occupies a territory I described here as "That Last Golden Summer At The End Of Which That Thing Happened Where My Whole Life Went To Shit". Much is implied rather than explicitly stated: clearly Eva's relationship with Pikelet is abusive, however much he might have been going WAHEY and climbing on enthusiastically at the time, but Sando's relationship with the boys is more subtly suspect as well, his desire to be a guru with adoring disciples blinding him to the physical danger he is putting the boys in. And the significance of the paramedic call-out and the apparent teenage suicide by hanging which provides the book's opening scene before the wibbly-wobbly dissolve into flashback only becomes clear once you get to the end. As with some other books which use a similar narrative device, the winding-up of the various loose ends of plot once we snap back into the "present" seems a bit rushed, but the descriptions of the surfing action are tremendous, and I speak as someone who doesn't really like the water and finds all the mystical horseshit associated with surfing generally irritating. I suppose if you want a single Winton recommendation it would probably be The Riders, but I would strongly recommend all of them. Breath was filmed in 2017, to generally positive reviews; interestingly Winton himself provides the voice of the adult Pikelet who serves as a narrator for parts of the film

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