It’s been a great year for literary books about sports. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a novel about cricket, is one of the most highly lauded works of fiction so far this year. Garth Stein’s The Art Of Racing In The Rain deals with race car driving. And two weeks ago, Haruki Murakami, of all people, weighed in with a memoir on running.
But make room on the shelf for Tim Winton’s Breath, which is a contender for the great surfing novel. This author has long garnered praise for his vivid evocations of the Australian landscape, but now he moves offshore and shows he is equally skilled at probing the ocean and what it conveys, either cresting on its waves or hidden beneath its beguiling surface.
Perhaps Winton aims to cover all four of the ancient elements. After his Dirt Music, a 2002 effort short-listed for the Booker Prize, and this new celebration of water, what is left? Clearly a novel about air and another about fire to complete the tetralogy. (And, no, Winton’s novel Cloudstreet did not take place on a cloud, so it doesn’t count.)
The waves here are as memorable as the characters in other books. Here we encounter the enticing but precarious surf at Barney’s Beach – Barney is the name of the 14-foot great white shark who patrols the waters. Or we learn of Old Smoky, massive white waves that break off coast in a location so inaccessible that surfers need to scale cliffs to reach them. But the return trip is even more hazardous. Best of all is the Nautilus, where a devastating wave breaks on a huge lump of rock far offshore, and even the most skilled surfer can only ride it for a few seconds.
We soon begin to realize that Breath is not so much about surfing, as it is about risk-taking. Two youngsters, the narrator Pikelet and his friend the aptly-named Loonie, fall under the influence of an aging surfer. The trio get caught up in a crazy spiral of trying to prove themselves and test each other with greater and greater dangers. Not all of the risks, however, take place in the waters. We learn that every setting, from the woodshed to the bedroom, can serve as a makeshift arena where a thrill-seeker can push things to the edge, and beyond.
Eva, the abrasive American wife of the older surfer Sando, stands as a walking, or rather limping, warning of what happens when courting danger becomes an end it itself. Eva was once a freestyle skier, famous more for her death-defying acrobatics than for skill or finesse. Then she suffered a career-ending injury that has left her barely able to walk. Yet Eva herself has hardly learned from her mishap, and eventually demonstrates that her propensity for deadly behavior outstrips even the exploits of those who ride the waves.
Long ago, Freud introduced the concept of thanatos, the so-called death instinct. Many have dismissed or even ridiculed this notion, so un-Darwinian in its nature. How can we have a death instinct, when all instinctual drives seem based on preserving and extending life? Yet Winton shows even more persuasively in story form what Freud tried to outline in theory. Winton’s characters reveal a barely hidden passion for non-existence, and death lingers at the fringes of almost every scene in this penetrating novel.
Not everything works in this book. The narrative at the end comes across as hurried, and we move so quickly through Pikelet’s later life that the drama and build of the first 80% of the book is dissipated. Yet the core of this novel is gripping, and Winton’s ability to bring out the beauty of the elements, while also illuminating the dark psyches of his protagonists, is impressive. “Writing a book is a bit like surfing,” Winton mentioned in a recent interview. Certainly he shows his mastery of the ebbs and flows in this striking book. But even better is the skill with which Winton probes the depths.