The Big Kahuna

By Tague, words John | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), May 4, 2008 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Big Kahuna

Tague, words John, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)

Tim Winton rode his first wave at six and began telling stories at 12. In his new novel, one of Australia's finest writers explores why the young heed the call of the surf

Talking to Tim Winton, one of Australia's most lauded contemporary novelists, isn't like talking to other writers. While his conversation ranges, typically enough, across the seminal writers who have influenced him - Twain, Stevenson, Wordsworth, Faulkner - there's also much conversation devoted to less typically writerish pursuits: surfing, swimming, wave breaks and reefs.

His preoccupation with the minutiae of surfing might be seen as characteristically Australian, but there's little that's typical with what he achieves with such raw material: to fashion a literature that makes the everyday experience of his country and society a vivid subject for serious and artistic fiction.

It's quickly obvious, too, just how deeply Winton has drawn on his own experiences in his latest novel, Breath. If his last novel, the Booker-nominated Dirt Music, was a hymn to the towering and brooding presence of the Australian landscape, Breath is a book that swaps earth for water. It is a short, fresh work, full of fizz and a vital poetry of sun, sand, sea and air. Yet, typically for Winton, there is also a weight that pulls on its central character, Bruce Pike, aka Pikelet, a young boy who comes of age risking extreme dangers in the pursuit of his addiction: surfing. Winton's devotion to the ocean, its ever-present influence on and in his life, is put to great use in its evocation of the primal presence of the sea in all its beauty and peril.

"Yeah," he says, thinking back to his first experiences on a surfboard, "I remember paddling out when I was a kid. I shot my first wave when I was five or six, y'know, and it was addictive. It was partly adrenaline, partly being completely enveloped by the elements. A lot of the time you'd be alone in the water and it was great - physically draining, but I probably would have done a lot more drugs and a lot more crazy things that were no less physically dangerous than some of the things we did do. It was enormously liberating."

Breath is a recollection of the youthful exploits of Pikelet and his wayward best mate Ivan Loon, named as such characters inevitably are in Australia, as Loonie. Loonie, it is quickly apparent, is the sort of fearless madman who is both hero and fool and who is driven to take ever-crazier risks in pursuit of an end that is never entirely clear.

As the novel develops, the two friends fall in with a mentor figure, the older Sando, a former surfing champion, who leads them into increasingly frightening situations as they pursue the ultimate in challenging breaks. It is a rite-of-passage novel without any pat conclusion, as Pikelet is led into a wisdom based on loss as much as enlightenment. It is a novel that captures the comedy of adolescence, as the boys blunder into and through unlikely situations, but there's a deep poignancy, too, as Pikelet comes to the painful realisation that he is, both figuratively and literally, out of his depth among the company he keeps.

As well as drawing on deep personal experience to create his novel, it is apparent that Winton is making an argument on behalf of his native country - so often patronisingly and erroneously accused of lacking "culture".

"When I grew up, surfing was our culture," he says. "It defined us, was the lens, however distorted, through which we saw ourselves. I was around when surfing was going through its hippie phase: it was all kids in Kombi vans, women who were earth mothers, and us just driving round, smoking heaps of pot. It was an innocent time, like San Francisco with salt. A lot of it was bollocks as well, but - and it's hard to say this without people curling their lip - I felt nurtured by it. I'm grateful to it as it got me though adolescence relatively unscathed and a part of me has always had a foot in that culture.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Big Kahuna


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?