"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
Surf Noir: The Fiction Of Kem Nunn
by Raymond Embrack
Wish you were here in Imperial Beach.
Can’t wait for you to join us on Sunday, June 10th on HBO.
John From Cincinnati
I had never received a postcard from a TV show. I wondered if all HBO subscribers got one or just Deadwood viewers. This was after we watched HBO cancel the magnificent foul-mouthed fucking series created by David Milch. One year later HBO replaced it with Milch’s next creation, John From Cincinnati, a less expensive show about surfers.
Cut to Sunday, June 10th. The final episode of The Sopranos goes black. Only because of the postcard do I stay tuned for the debut of John From Cincinnati following The Sopranos. I never got a postcard from a TV show, so I feel like I had to be there for my buddy John.
The concept of "creative freedom" still hasn’t recovered from the damage done by this show. The rest of the first season went aggressively unseen by me or anyone else. The show was so bad it didn’t even get a second season on HBO. It was cancelled after one season. By HBO.
When looking for a subject to write for Noir Originals, for some reason what turned up in my head most was the term "surf noir" and the novelist associated with John From Cincinnati. The writer’s name is Kem Nunn and his novels are labeled "surf noir." So I looked into it.
Kem Nunn, 59, is a surfer novelist and "third-generation Californian." Quote: "What’s so wonderful about surfing is that it not only connects you with the ocean but also a certain energy in nature. When you’re surfing, it’s like you really are tapping into that source." To my knowledge, as its only writer, Surf noir is a sub-genre Nunn created and has all to himself. Since 1984, Nunn has produced a handful of novels set in noir territory: antiheroes, lost innocence, doom, a noir view of the war between good and evil. In the world of these novels, surfing is "like following a path", the practice of a "religion," its followers keeping the legends of the great surfers, maintaining the surfer-god mystique along the west coast while tracking the conditions between the Pacific Rim.
The novel I read was Tijuana Straits. Tijuana Straits is set in California in the Tijuana River Valley at the border, "neither America nor Mexico but a country unto itself" "a repository of fringe dwellers and secret histories". Surf noir is about nature, here the western landscape on the U.S. side (environmental depletion and packs of wild dogs), the harsh landscapes (toxic waste and harsh existence) on the Mexico side, the river running between them where illegals drown, the ocean where surfers seek transcendence and the highest level is to become a "waterman." These people live off the land or the ocean, its characters expert and dependent on nature’s processes while they match its environmental decay with their own.
Here, the surf noir hero is a fallen surfing legend in need of redemption: "I surfed well. But I did not live well." He refuses to surf again because "surfing is something you earn." That means by book’s end, he will surf again, taking on The Big Wave of his youth. The narrative draws together three points of view in the most basic of noir plotlines: the reluctant hero, the woman he shelters, and the killers on her trail. Nunn is a good read. His writing is first-rate. He writes from first-hand knowledge and a thick research notebook of lived-in detail and rich depth, a broad scope of border-spanning social realism. Mostly, the depth is spent on a too-simple plot too slowly developed.
Noir, with or without surfboards, is hardboiled, dark, splattered with bloody pasts whose demons stalk the present, haunting the twitching burn-outs and natural born fuck-ups groping toward redemption. What makes surf noir unique is having a spiritual center, a connection to nature, a balance of darkness and light so tangible you can take snapshots of it by the sea.
Copyright © Raymond Embrack, 2008
RAYMOND EMBRACK. Paperback writer, USA.