by Tim Winton
Published by Picador
Reviewed by Sam Bleakley and Alan Bleakley
There is little in the way of relaxation in this taut novella. It’s like a stretched rubber band about to snap. Compared with the natural elements, the characters are small, barely sketched. Two boys, Pikelet and Loonie, grow up in a backwater in Western Australia, and are bonded by a love of swimming. Loonie pushes Pikelet to test who can hold their breath longest underwater. When they start surfing a few years later, Loonie becomes the ‘hellman’ where Pikelet is cautious and feels the fear. An older guru figure, Billy Sanderson (Sando) enters the boys’ lives, driving a wedge between them that will eventually destroy their friendship and lead Loonie into self-destruction. Sando has a neurotic wife, Eva, who was once ‘at the radical margin of her own sport’, a top freestyle skier, but is now retired with a mangled knee and an addiction to painkillers. Seduced by 25-year-old Eva while Sando and Loonie are on a surf trip to Indonesia, an emotionally naive 15-year-old Pikelet becomes an unwilling accomplice in her perverse erotic games of auto-asphyxiation (games that make her ‘come like a freight train’). Pikelet is soon out of his depth.
There’s always something rumbling from below. The paradoxical mix of fear and pleasure in big-wave surfing resonates with the uncertain depths of the relationships. A point comes where you can no longer hang around at the edge of the boil – you either take off to gamble with the extraordinary, or you paddle in, choosing the safety of the ordinary. Here big-wave surfing perversely becomes a compensation for things missing in life, not an enrichment of that life. From this more negative viewpoint, the passion of surfing is inherently destructive rather than creative. It is in the paradoxically erotic turbulence of the wipeout, in the danger of the hold-down, its near-asphyxiation, that surfing generates its charge, and not in what Winton calls the “dance” of surfing, “doing something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant”.
At times Winton’s surfing descriptions are masterful and brilliant. “ … 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.” But Winton, like many writers on surfing before him, has attempted to abstract the aesthetic and feeling of surfing from its evident material and cultural dimensions. This is a mistake. Surfing has always been a marriage between form and function. The combined craft of the shaper and glasser precedes the expert rider who turns craft into art. Also, the feeling of ‘going surfing’ is not just derived from the sensation of plummeting down a wave face, but is already prepared for us culturally by a surf industry.
Breath is a fine, but flawed, book and should add to Winton’s outstanding record of prize-winning novels. It is certainly one of the best novels we currently have about surfing, and is written by a surfer. But from Winton’s own accounts in interviews, he is pretty caustic about what comes out of the surfing media, particularly the quality of writing, which he says is ‘deadly embarrassing’. In Breath, Pikelet, at 50, goes surfing and is “free”, he doesn’t “require management” – surfing is beyond the commercial. But this is naïve. Surfers bring culture with them in the boards they ride, and the way they ride them. Winton is ‘managed’ ¬– by the ‘soul surfer’ mentality. He suggests that what “men and women who are passionate about surfing” can bring to the wider “grown up” culture is “wisdom”, not “market share”. But this is just like Sando having Castaneda on his shelf and not knowing, as we now do, that Don Juan was a fiction of Castaneda’s imagination, and those shamanic experiences were written from the safety of Castaneda’s office in a Californian University as a way of making a living.