If there’s one literary genre that’s ideally suited for summertime beach reading, it’s surf fiction. Admittedly, it’s a niche that’s tough to take seriously sometimes. A large slice of fictional surf narratives rely on tired clichés, overused and abused beach lingo, and one-too-many references to eye-catching tanlines.
But there are exemptions, and there’s an elite few who have crafted notable tales that appeal to wave-riders and non-beach folk alike. These authors penned stories that focus less on the sand and the sex, and more on the unusual characters that are drawn to surfing — a sport that, for much of the 20th century, existed on the fringe of respectable society.
Here’s a list of five authors who have knack for examining beach culture, drawing readers into the lives of people who feel right at home amongst the pounding surf:
1. Kem Nunn
An avid surfer, Nunn is rather adept at delving into California’s criminal underbelly. Aside from working on Sons of Anarchy, Nunn has written several “surf noir” novels, including Tapping the Source and The Dogs of Winter, that highlight the darker aspects of surf culture. These books are murky, rough and populated with burnouts, thugs and general ne’er-do-wells that are memorably written and brimming with life.
In his debut novel, Tapping the Source, teenaged protagonist Ike Tucker heads down to a ‘70s-era Huntington Beach (which had a seedy reputation at the time) to find his missing sister. Nunn perfectly pulls the reader along as Ike explores, and is then enveloped by, a beach culture that is often misjudged as being sunny, shallow and harmless.
2. Pat Grant
The only graphic novelist on this list, Australian cartoonist and writer Grant created an engaging sci-fi story, Blue, that focuses on a seaside Australian town that’s inundated with strange, octopus-like aliens. These “immigrants” try to fit in but are quickly blamed by locals for ruining the town’s economy. Three grungy, annoying and all-together extremely teenage surfers ditch school one day to go paddle out and track down a rumored dead alien body on the outskirts of town.
Grant — who, as a child, really did find a dead body — presents a visceral examination of death, innocence and racism. In a country that’s still coming to terms with xenophobia spurred by upheavals like the 2005 Cronulla Race Riots, Blue looks at social issues that all Australians, both surfers and non, confront daily.
3. Tim Winton
It’s important to remember that, in Australia, surfing is something of a national pastime. The ocean and water sports play an important role in the lives of Australian young and old. In Winton’s novel, Breath, an adolescent turns to surfing as an exciting escape. Winton portrays the sport, the ocean and Australia using vivid, and sometimes grim, prose that hit home. The story’s protagonist views surfing as an outlet for his youthful need for danger, fear and discovery, and Winton portrays it all with expert finesse.
4. Don Winslow
While not a true “surf author,” Winslow has a keen understanding of Southern California culture — both the good and the bad. In his recent novels, Savages and The Kings of Cool, Winslow delves headfirst into Orange County, describing its glitzy beaches, health-nut inclinations, text-speak and vain materialistic sensibilities with biting ease. Occasionally, he focuses on similarly dark and gritty surf characters as Nunn does (they pop up in The Kings of Cool), but surf culture is front and center in The Dawn Patrol, which tells the story of a P.I. surfer who’s assigned a case that digs up painful ghosts from his past.
Winslow has a talent for writing cool, humorous and oftentimes brutally honest California noir stories, and he’s one of the few who can depict the state’s surf culture in a disarming, truthful and altogether entertaining fashion.
5. Frederick Kohner
Kohner, a screenwriter and novelist, wasn’t much of a surfer. It was his daughter, Kathy “Gidget” Kohner, who fell in love with surfing at a young age during the ‘50s. Her exploits at Malibu beach with famous surf icons of the time — Mickey Dora, Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy and Kemp Aaberg — greatly inspired her father’s novel, Gidget. In the book, the main character Francine Lawrence (nicknamed “Gidget,” short for “girl midget”) discovers surfing and falls in love with a surfer, Moondoggie. For a non-surfer, Kohner did a decent job of picking up the appropriate lingo, as well as conveying the excitement of wave-riding.
The book sold well and was later adapted into a 1959 film starring Sandra Dee. Some attribute the film to the spike in surfing’s popularity during the ‘60s, when the sport grew from a minor pastime practiced by few to a thriving sport enjoyed by thousands on both coasts. While the book may not stand the test of time, it’s an iconic piece of surf fiction and important part of the sport’s history.
Stefan A. Slater is a freelance writer from Los Angeles. He’s contributed pieces to LA Weekly, Huck and Surfer, and he writes regularly for Southbay magazine. You can check out more of his work over at StefanASlater.com.
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