Monday, August 20, 2012

The End of the Party: Tapping the Source

I have to admit I read the last two books in our series out of order. The New York Public Library was on top of their game and got me The Dawn Patrol fairly soon after I placed a hold on it, but the post office let me down in the media mail department and Tapping the Source took nearly a week to reach me. Based on what I've read and how I feel generally (more on that later), I've decided to make an executive decision: this will be the last post I'll write in the Beach Noir Book Club.

The Dawn Patrol just isn't up to our high standards. It's not a bad book, and I whipped through it fairly quickly. I found myself enjoying some of its digressions on local history (I learned a lot about San Diego and Pacific Beach) and it was admittedly suspenseful in parts but ultimately a let down, with a cliched scenario and some fairly poorly drawn characters. It was -- and I realize it's slightly ironic for me to use this term here -- a beach read. In the traditional sense of the word.

If you've already bought the book, by all means read it (and feel free to offer to guest post) . You won't want to throw it against the wall or anything. But it won't stay with you.

Tapping the Source, however, will fucking stay with you. Right? If you've read it you know what I mean. Outlandish as certain elements are (e.g. the climactic party scene) their very insanity will make a deep, lasting, impression. If you haven't read it and just know it vaguely as "the book that inspired Point Break," please know the novel is a totally different animal. It's basically as different as In A Lonely Place is from its film adaptation. Except times a million.

I haven't actually seen Point Break, but based on the fact that it didn't receive an NC-17 rating, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there were probably many key differences between these two artifacts. Here are some elements from the novel that I imagine are missing from the movie: incest, mutilation, severed limbs, teenage runaways getting gang banged, murder, maiming, and extreme despair.

Ike Tucker, the book's protagonist and source of this despair, reminds me a bit of some of S.E. Hinton's outsiders; Nunn's writing also has a similarly rough hewed quality. Apparently author Kem Nunn didn't go to college until he turned thirty, and his gritty life experience (surfing, working on boats) breaks through in his prose: repetitions betray a limited vocabulary, descriptions are workmanlike and somewhat coarse, but the dialogue feels realer than real, with surfing lingo so seamlessly interwoven you know Nunn's no poser. It feels like the gut-effort of a prodigy less concerned with style than telling a story, one borne of a desperate emotional urge. Yet the book is no fluke, it can't be -- the mystery is too good. It simply reads like the work of a natural.

The L.A. Times pull-quote in the edition I read compares Nunn to Hammett, Chandler, Raoul Whitfelm, Paul and James M. Cain, Horace McCoy and "yes, Ross Macdonald." I wouldn't go that far, but there are definite similarities to McCoy's They Shoot Horses... in its overall effect of total bleakness, as well as echoes of Macdonald's soul-searching. Every once in a while Tapping the Source goes over the top, but Nunn's spare prose pulls it off.

Mostly I was haunted by the emotionally wraith-like Ike Tucker and his heartbreaking quest for his lost, wild sister. How this character ever got translated into "Johnny Utah" I'll never know.

Perhaps the melancholy that pervaded Tapping the Source got into my head somehow, because when it was done I closed the book and thought, "This is it. Summer is over." In all honesty, I've been leading up to that point for a little while now. Maybe it has something to do with it getting hot so early this year, but I feel like it's been summer for a long time. Certain trees I've seen seem to feel the same way; I've recently spotted both yellow and red leaves fluttering down from their tops these past few weeks. Also the weather feels cooler. And my big beach trip of the summer ended yesterday with a series of signs telegraphing the end of a season. I think it's time to close the book on the summer of 2012. At least on the Beach Noir part of it.... It's been amazing. I've been re-inspired by some of my old favorites by Macdonald and Dorothy B. Hughes, and truly shattered by Horace McCoy. I read a novel I never would've encountered otherwise. And I've learned that I mostly pair hardboiled/noir books with beer, and occasionally gin and tonics.

It's been real. And it's time to let it fade. I'll do so with Nunn's own words:

"He thought of what it must have been like then, beaches like this one scattered up and down the coast like jewels at the edge of the sea. It must have seemed too good to be true, and it must have seemed that it would be that way forever, and yet now it was the wreckage of that dream that lay between them. And he saw too that it was not just Preston and Hound who had lost. He thought of the pier, the crowds fighting for waves, the entire zoo of a town crouched on the sand and what had once passed for hunger and vitality had only a certain desperateness about it now, coked-out fatigue, because they had all lost..."

Now that's beach reading. 


Flicker said...

Just got back from my own vacation today (mountains not beach, sorry!) and wanted to add my two cents. I'm fine with ending the "club" here -- I bought the last book but I think I'll just set it aside until next summer.

I agree with you about Tapping the Source. It is a very rough, amateurish, moving, amazing book. While I was reading it I was thinking things like "Come on, you're an MFA, SHOW don't TELL," and I would look at my watch and count the number of pages until the end of the next section, but at the same time I couldn't stop reading. I believed in Ike Tucker, in his situation, in his mixed up, back and forth feelings about things. Felt very human. The over-the-topness of the final scene at the ranch didn't bother me -- after all, weird things happen all the time in California, and it wasn't the most important part of the story.

I was thinking about this book in comparison with the Leigh Brackett book -- that was a very polished, proficient book with no heart and no point to it, and this one is a rough, messy book with so much heart and soul.

One thing I got from this book was an appreciation of surfing -- so funny! I've always thought of surfing as something that dumb surfer dudes (think Jeff Spicoli) do. Never thought about the whole "tapping the source" idea, never thought of it as a way to commune with the ocean (in the same way one communes with mountains by climbing them).

I was on vacation with my brother-in-law (among other people) and he saw me reading the book. He said Nunn's later book Dogs of Winter is much better -- he did apparently develop into a more polished writer. I don't have much interest in reading the later book, though, because there are SO many other books on my to-read list. It's funny... two of the books we read, the Ross Macdonald and the Dorothy B. Hughes, did not appeal to me particularly but made me very interested in reading more by those authors. I've finished the Macdonald bio I was reading -- fascinating, sad life. I wish there was a Hughes bio -- someone should write one.

But I don't really want to read more of Nunn. I feel like I've read his story. It knocked me over flat. I can stop there.

Andrea Janes said...

I hear you. Total agreement on everything you just said. I can't wait for you to read more Ross Macdonald and Hughes and tell me what you think! Maybe YOU should write the Hughes bio!

I am reading her 1963 novel THE EXPENDABLE MAN and there will absolutely be a blog post on it coming soon. It is just incredible. There is no other word for it. I don't think I've ever read anything like it.

Thanks for participating in the "club" (of three!) and for your awesomely insightful comments. I hope to hear more from you soon and hope you'll keep following this blog for what I hope will be frequent and regular noir updates!

Adam benShea said...

I just finished reading Tapping the Source and was thinking of how it reminded me of a more 'grown up' version of S.E. Hinton's writing. It is nice to see someone else pick up on this comparison. Thank you for the review. I enjoyed reading it.

Andrea Janes said...

Thanks Adam! Glad you read it as well -- I think Tapping the Source is a bit of an overlooked gem, even if a rough, unpolished one. I've also since watched Point Break....and it's amazing, and with much more skydiving than I'd expected :)