Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fresh Breath

Making Waves at HOP Snr

At last, a reason to live. I’ve just finished reading Tim Winton’s Breath. In the last few weeks I’ve waded through a sludge of awful Australian novels. I’ve near enough drowned in bottomless quagmires of syrupy metaphors. There is only so much I can take of being told the sky/land/sea is very like something related to food/sex/madness. I’ve all but choked on prize-directed worthiness and been conned into taking gratuitous side trips to London or New York serving no other purpose than to woo the UK or US market. Rubbish writers please note – I do not require you to actually have been to these places, you do however, have to make me believe you are taking me there. A little less reliance on the London Underground map and a little more on the imagination s’il vous plait, my time is precious.

But Tim, ah. This is how it should be done. I have taken it upon myself to read some of the other reviews. They’re mostly bollocks, falling over themselves to explain to me that this novel is a bildungsroman – no kidding. What is with literary reviews these days? Breath is about a boy (Brucie ‘Pikelet’ Pike) and his mate (Ivan ‘Loonie’ Loon) who do dangerous things in water when the adults aren’t watching. Who’s not picturing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn? Would it help if I told you the name of the logging town in which Breath is set is called ‘Sawyer’. It recalls that wonderful time in the sixties and seventies when you were left pretty much alone after the age of twelve to imperil your young life at will. Parents were far too busy working, sleeping or obsessing about something that would never happen to remember they had children. It was the last great age of juvenile risk taking.

Patrick Ness in one’s beloved Guardian informs me that this is not a story about surfing. I beg to differ. This is all about surfing, and in particular, big wave surfing. The eloquent explanations of the technical problem-solving that goes into conquering a unique wave go way beyond mere metaphor. It’s not just about lunatic courage either, although it is very much a book about plotting the often arbitrary line that separates life from death. Pikelet concludes,

'Some risks it would seem are beyond respecting. Meanwhile, everyone is terrified that this whatever life has become, is it. And what’s worse is it’ll be over soon.'

Anyone interested in wave weaving will love Breath, although you don’t have to be a foam-head to enjoy it. When it comes to water, Ma Pants is the Persian cat of the Pants family but she adored it. Not that I know a huge amount about riding giants – I did bolt from an uncommon five foot swell at Noosa Beach once screaming ‘tsunami!’ so you know I’m no warrior of the waves. It seems to me Winton invokes some famous surf quests to illustrate Breath. The boys are mentored by the mysterious and legendary surfer Bill ‘Sando’ Sanderson, who sets them a series of progressively more death-defying challenges. Surfing around rocks is an extreme sport with the possibility of crashing and burning being very real. Northern California surfer Jeff Clark wasn’t much older than Pikelet and Loonie when he became the first to master Mavericks, near his home. He rode these previously deemed too dangerous to surf waves alone for fifteen years without incident. Then Hawaiian big wave professional Mark Foo was killed on his first time out. Old Smoky in Breath is Like Mavericks – mad but not impossible, with survival being as much down to luck as skill and experience.

Pikelet rides at Old Smoky but draws the line at the Nautilus, a killer break that both Loonie and Sando attempt but neither rides successfully. There are suicide waves in surfing that only the madest and/or bravest will attempt. In 2000 Laird Hamilton, considered the greatest ever big wave surfer, became the only person to ride Tahiti’s Teahupo’o break where wiping out equals certain death. Pikelet tells us that Loonie ‘surfed like someone who didn’t believe in death’. The triumph of this book is that Winton judges neither the rider nor the refuser. In the real world no one thinks every surfer apart from Laird Hamilton is a pussy.

Sando’s wife Eva gets her glimpse into the black hole of mortality via erotic asphyxiation, a practice in which she involves Pikelet when Sando and Loonie piss off to Indonesia. These flatlining experiences, along with a chance encounter with a fatal car wreck and a real death closer to home, define Pikelet. Whereas Sando, Eva and Loonie will all need to leave Sawyer to escape its perceived stifling ordinariness, Pikelet will become a paramedic. This is ultimately a book about being alive, a notion that proves to be Pikelet’s great interest and provide his future calling. As a paramedic, he steps up to meet death's challenge to life and finds his purpose there. He concludes,

'Now I knew there was no room left in my life for stupid risks. Death was everywhere – waiting, willing, undiminished. It would always be coming for me and mine and I told myself, I could no longer afford the thrill of courting it.'

Salman Rushdie said a book should ‘feel necessary’ and shouldn’t bother coming into the world unless it does. After the dross I’ve read in the last couple of weeks, I can only heartily agree. Here we have a great idea, simply cast and beautifully executed. A high water mark has been reached with Breath. It's a masterclass in being necessary...


Ms Baroque said...


Oh and now I wish I was by the sea... a hot beach... and I NEVER wish that. Just a swim, and some sand, though, that would do me. I don't need big rocks.

R.H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
R.H. said...

I'd say disgraceful but it was something worse

Wisewebwoman said...

Some books are like that, you write well of the experience of crawling in and letting it take you on a wonderful ride.
As I was reading your post I thought of myself at twelve, setting myself the challenge of encircling this wild island off the coast of Ireland. Hanging off cliff edges, clinging for dear life at times. Utterly fearless.
I need to write about it sometime. At twelve we are immortal.

Anonymous said...

I've just read "Breath" and loved it.

What bad Australian books have you read recently? Just curious (I'm Australian). Am reading "The good parents" by Joan London at the moment. She is another Western Australian author. I must say, it is a hard slog, having just read "Breath".


That's So Pants said...

Hi Anon

One by Alex Miller. One I can't remember the name of but was about a woman whose daughter dies and she goes off and has sex with an asylum seeker. One by someone I know so can't go into...



Reading the Signs said...

ok - putting this on the list. I'm reading a book of short stories by Miranda July. I love them.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Signs

You will love it, I'm sure.



Ario said...

I orderer it last week after hearing him on Simon Mayo's Book Panel (available on the BBC Radio5 website as a podcast in case you missed it). From the review there the book sounded intriguing (though given the pre-Watershed hour they didn't mention the erotic asphexiation) and the writer himself sounded really sorted. I am looking forward to reading it.

Hope everything is well down in Pantsland.

That's So Pants said...

Hi Ario

You will love it I'm sure - otherwise you can blame me.



Middle Child said...

Tim Winton is wonderful - he's "outside" the literatti - and pretty much self taught and it shopws in his originality - he has written quite a few novels and they are all so different...
his turn of phrase is oriinal and easy to understand. I have no idea why people thinnk that when some intelligenstia dribbles out a poem or prose or novel and parts of it are so hard to understand you almost give up - that they are clever - for me if something complex can be reduced to being able to be understood easily - then that shows real intelligience...and originality

That's So Pants said...

Hi Middle Child

I can only agree. However I was a bit miffed to find the adjective 'gnarly' in Breath as I really thought I had invented that one.



R.H. said...

I would say that myself Middle C -about the hard to read trash of the last twenty years.


That's So Pants said...


I guess the way you tell is pretentiousness dates, class doesn't. For me, Winton represents the little black dress of fiction.