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Catching the Big One

Breath by Tim Winton
Pan Macmillan, $37.39. Reviewed by TERENCE WOOD

I’m on the edge of the North Atlantic, paddling for dear life. Fleeing out to sea. Hoping to make it beyond the steepening swell. My arms are wound by adrenaline, my board is skimming over the water, but the race is already lost. The wave stands up in front of me, and collapses like a building.

The only way now is under. I slide off my board and start swimming. If I can get deep enough I’ll dodge the worst. Down I go: deep, but nowhere near enough. Turbulence comes crashing after me and all of a sudden I’m torn, flogged, pulled to pieces by invisible arms. Dragged deeper still. I close my eyes.

When I open them again the wave has past. The water is black. And I’m guessing which way is up. Swimming in water that stays opaque, looking for grey – the sun’s light on the surface. I’m out of breath and the space in my chest is filling with coils of fear. Finally, the colours above me change and I’m racing upwards, pushed on by the kick of empty lungs. Hurry. Hurry. I burst back into the world of oxygen, spluttering, coughing breathing in thirsty gulps. When I’m able, I pull myself on my board and paddle out, away from the point and the breaking waves, then stop. I lie, limp like a discarded toy, filling myself with air.

“Why, in god’s name,” I wonder, “am I doing this?”

Tim Winton has an answer. It begins with a depression and two world wars, and the people who fled all that. People who found stability and security in small town Australia, and who needed little more – the wireless in the evening and trips down the river fishing. People who hunkered down along the strip of green between the deserts’ edge and the shocking-blue, unfurling sea, equally wary of both. People who gave birth to kids who took all that for granted.

Kids like Bruce Pike (Pikelet) the protagonist of Breath and his friend Ivan Loon (Loonie). Evading teenage ennui, Pikelet and Loonie discover first the hum of excitement that waits on the edge of fear – holding their breaths at the bottom of the local swimming hole, playing chicken with trucks on the highway – and then the “pointless” beauty of riding waves upon the sea. The two discoveries are separate initially – like everyone else they learn to surf in the safety of the shallows – but slowly, as they make it out to the Point on bigger days, wave riding, fear and adrenaline become interwoven. Then they meet Billy Sanderson (Sando), sometime surf star, now proto-hippie purist who lives with his American wife Eva up off the road connecting the beach to the town. Sando becomes a mentor of sorts, taking them to secret surf spots, and out into bigger and bigger waves. He teaches them surf law; they play the part of acolytes.

Every few years Hollywood puts out a surf movie with a similar script: young surfer gets taken under the wing of a mysterious guru figure. Under his tutelage (it’s always a he) the rookie rises, confronts his demons, gets the girl, and claims victory on the sea. Mercifully, Breath doesn’t get far along this road before the characters’ faults become fault lines for the plot. Sando’s Zen-styled quest for purity is as self-centred as it is self-less and cruel in its way. Pikelet, for his part, is a tormented student, far less brave than he can possibly admit; often only making it into the water when his fear of being left behind outweighs his fear of the churning sea. Loonie, perhaps, is truly fearless, but his bravado fills a space left empty by his home life. Much easier to tackle fear than to live as the publican’s illegitimate son. And Eva is broken, a freestyle skier with a ruined knee; living on painkillers, unable to jump again; moody and hurt, with a husband who would sooner play teacher to teenage boys.

Eventually, Pikelet’s fear gets the better of him and he refuses to go out at Nautilus, a surf spot off a granite island three miles out to sea; a “shark pit”, where the waves break so sudden and so steep as to be “unthinkable”. He’s rewarded by an excommunication of sorts – Sando and Loonie travel to Indonesia without him and he’s left behind with Eva, stumbling into an affair. As the relationship progresses, Eva has Pikelet suffocate her during sex, finding a thrill in auto-erotic asphyxiation to make up for those she lost with her ability to ski. Pikelet is horrified and tormented, but out beyond his depth, and never quite sure how to stop. The affair only comes to an end when Sando returns alone, having been discarded by Loonie for further adventure on the road.

Pikelet’s belated response is an attempted return to normality, accelerated when his father is killed in an accident at work. It never quite happens though – there’s a marriage, and a divorce, and time spent institutionalised, followed by a flight into the desert.

It sounds bleak. But it’s not – quite. While their accumulated faults lead to disasters, the characters aren’t monsters, and good accompanies bad, all caught by an author with an eye for gentle detail. The land and seascapes are stunning too; Winton takes from the accidental poetry of surf talk and adds to it:

Heading home from that first day at Barney’s, bone sore and lit up, we relived the morning wave by wave, shoring it up against our own disbelief. By common assent, Loonie had caught the wave of the day. It was a smoker…The wave reared up, pitching itself forward and simply swallowed him. I heard him scream for joy or terror and could only see him intermittently as he navigated a path beneath the warping fold of water. He was a blur in there, ghostly. When he finally shot out and passed me, he looked back at the weird dilating eye of the wave and gave it the finger.

Most of all Breath is softened by the fact that Winton can forgive his protagonist. A sadder, older and wiser Pikelet, as the narrator of the tale, is allowed insight and understanding, and, in the end, a kind of peace with himself.

And for a surfer? To me, Breath rings true; the language, law, and culture of the sport are all relayed convincingly. The various explanations, embodied by the different characters, for the differing motivations of big wave riders sound right. I can relate to Pikelet – as difficult as it can be to go out in big waves and face your fear, it can be more difficult still to sit on the beach stewing, broiled by self-doubt.

I had only one quibble: the waves Sando takes Pikelet and Loonie out in. They’re too big: the stuff of legends, the sort of thing the world’s greatest big wave riders might take on at the height of their careers. But two teenage boys? Perhaps if they were prodigies or future world champions, but Pikelet and Loonie aren’t, and don’t need to be, either. The tale that takes them from the normalcy of small town Australia to fear, misadventure and damage could have worked just as well with waves that were big, but no so big as to be story of their own.

That’s a quibble though, easily forgiven. Because Breath is not just a great story, it is a real good surf story too. Right to the end when an almost intact Pikelet is allowed one final indulgence: from time to time, when the wind and swell are right, he makes it down to the Point to surf, riding a beat up old board. Not for the adrenaline, not to “prove anything,” but simply to “slide down the long green walls into the bay.” And to “feel what I started out with, what I lost so quickly and for so long: the sweet momentum, the turning force under foot, and those brief moments of grace.” As any surfer can tell you, that’s a happy enough ending.

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Terence Wood is a Wellington based reviewer and one time surfer. Illness keeps him out of the sea these days. So, naturally enough, it’s all he ever thinks about. You can read his blog here [1].

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