This is “not a story about surfing; it’s a story about fear, about pushing beyond fear, and about becoming addicted to the pushing.” This is how Patrick Ness sums up Tim Winton’s latest novel, a coming-of-age classic about the solitary Pikelet (Bruce Pike) who, with his friend Loonie, discovers the joys and the adrenaline rush of surfing and is never quite the same afterwards.
“There was never any doubt about the primary thrill of surfing, the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears,” writes Pikelet, the narrator of Breath. “We didn’t know what endorphins were, but we quickly understood how narcotic the feeling was, and how addictive it became; from day one I was stoned from just watching.”
In an extraordinarily evocative novel, Winton recreates (through Pikelet’s memories of a time 30 years before), a rich sense of place and character in a Western Australian seacoast of the 1970s:
Sun blazed in rods through the big old gums. There were dragonflies in the air above us. I saw a towel near the diving plank and beside it a grubby pair of thongs, so I had no reason to doubt there was a crisis. Only the sluggish water seemed harmless and these females, who were making a frightful noise, looked so strangely out of place. I should have twigged. But I went into action on their behalf. As I bolted out to the sagging end of the springboard the wood was hot and familiar underfoot. (p.12)
How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared. In Sawyer, a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers, with one butcher and a rep from the rural bank beside the BP, men did solid, practical things, mostly with their hands. Perhaps a baker might have had a chance to make something as pretty as it was tasty, but our baker was a woman anyway, a person as dour and blunt as any boy’s father and she baked loaves like housebricks. (p.23)
One surfer seemed to show up on only the very biggest days. He was quite an old guy and his board was so long and thick that he’d carry the thing on his head down through the peppermint scrub to the beach. Then he’d jog to the water and launch himself into the crunching shorebreak and aim straight for the rip, paddling on his knees, always as casual as you like, whatever the conditions. You’d barely see him for half an hour and then a set would break out wide, like a squall rolling into the bay, and you’d suddenly pick out the white squirt of a wake on the grey-brown crags of a wave big and ugly enough to make you shiver. There he would be, that tiny figure, strangely upright and nonchalant, rising and swooping until he was close enough to be more than just a silhouette. His skill was extraordinary. There was something special about his insouciance and the princely manner in which he cross-stepped along his long, old-timey board, how he stalled and feinted and then surged in spurts of acceleration across the shoaling banks, barely ahead of the growling beast at his back, and when the wave fattened toward the deep channel in the middle of the bay, he’d stand at the very tip of the board with his spine arched and his head thrown back as if he’d just finished singing an anthem that nobody else could hear.” [p.28]
There are many things to comment on here. Brian Doyle likens Winton’s landscape to the equally evocative landscapes (and people-scapes) of the American masters William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Alice McDermott. Winton “has created a place so fictively real that it truly reveals the complex people and passions of his native Western Australian seacoast”, says Doyle. The fictive town where Pikelet comes from is Sawyer, which brings back memories of the river adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Then there’s the sense of being extraordinary. Despite being an “old guy” (only 36), Sando is the epitome of what the boys wish for themselves. He has a quiet strength, is calm and collected and on the biggest days he will take on the roughest and ugliest waves with an insouciance, a coolness that only serves to magnify in the boys’ eyes his extraordinary skill. Winton’s use of action verbs is itself remarkable and in one paragraph he can have his readers gasping at his masterful skill. He will use simple but unexpected verbs like cross-stepped, stalled and feinted and then build the action up to a crescendo, with the apt analogy of Sando “singing an anthem that nobody else could hear”. For me there’s an echo of what Adam Phillips talks about in his description of the romanticisation of madness — “being in touch … with powers and forces and voices”. Except hear the powerful forces are all too evident to the watching spectators while the anthem is one that only the extraordinary surfer can hear.
The novel is effectively one of two parts. The first deals with the build-up and the adrenaline rush of surfing the huge waves of Old Smokey, Barney’s and the ship-wrecking rock known as the Nautilus. The surfing guru takes the boys under his wing and they discover, accidentally it seems, that Sando was once an internationally-renowned surfer while his girlfriend, the bitter but enigmatic Eva, was a champion extreme skier who wrecked her knee in a bad fall.
Here the issue of fear is one that takes centre-stage and that also separates the men from the boys. The characters in Breath believe that “one becomes extraordinary only by facing fears and taking risks, and the bigger the risk, the better”. Sando tells them that anxiety about catching huge waves is natural and to work through the fear rather than fighting against it. Loonie, however, believes that fear can never be admitted and demands ruthless courage. On the day when the boys are to take on Old Smokey, Loonie still has his arm in a sling and so misses out while Pikelet, paralysed with fright at the huge waves, is only able to surf them at all with the help of Sando’s gentle encouragement. Something broke between the friends that day, as Pikelet recalls, and afterwards it is Loonie who leaves Pikelet in his wake with his fearless, daredevil attitude.
The second part details Pikelet’s fall from grace. When Sando and Loonie go off on a surfing trip to Indonesia, leaving Pikelet and Eva behind, the two take comfort in each other, despite the fact that Pikelet is only 14 or 15 years old. This is a sexual awakening which is also a form of pushing through fear, and the parallel between surfing and sex is not coincidental. Pikelet’s sexual awakening, however, is also a form of abuse since he is basically too young and unprepared for the emotions that follow.
Comparing Winton’s breath and Sam de Brito’s The Lost Boys, Stephen Matchett writes in The Australian that “there is no arguing that this is another of Winton’s superb explorations of Australian men. As in Dirt Music and the Vic Lang stories, Winton writes about the walking wounded of life, the blokes who failed to meet their own expectations and those of the people who loved — or at least liked — them”. Matchett says the core of the story is the way that Pikelet “loses the sense of self he finds in surfing, and the way he is judged and found wanting by his mate, his mentor, his girlfriend and his lover”. The phrase “walking wounded” seems to be one that gets used often to describe Winton’s male characters. Thirty years on, a grown Pikelet still judges “every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living”.
As impressed as he is with Winton’s superb writing, Matchett is also disturbed by the way the male characters (in both books) are “passive in the wreck of their own lives”. I wonder if Winton makes use of this deliberately, allowing the narratives to become, in effect, a way that his “walking wounded” male characters make sense of their lives and start to take responsibility for putting the broken pieces back together.