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. …