Tuesday, 6 October 2009

'something completely pointless and beautiful'

by Tim Winton

One of the joys of reading can be to transport yourself to another place entirely from the one you are living in. A regular journey to work for example can be transformed into a journey of a far less mundane variety and even a short coffee break can give you a few minutes to leap off to somewhere more exotic. Holed up in a theatre recently for two 12-hour days doing technical rehearsals I wanted something that would not only take me somewhere else, but somewhere that was almost the opposite, a place filled with light, energy and open space. Rather neatly the word antipodes means any two points on the earth diametrically opposite each other and has come to mean Australia to us in the UK. Tim Winton has twice been nominated for the Booker and is so well regarded in his native Australia that he has been named a Living Treasure by their National Trust. This most recent novel of his uses that national pastime of surfing to explore themes of escape, flirtation and flight from death, in a coming of age tale that bubbles with energy and that sense of risk. Perfect in other words for keeping me awake in a darkened theatre.

When we first meet Bruce Pike it is as an older man, working as a paramedic, as he tends to a 17-year old boy who seems to have hung himself. Pike knows far more about what might have led to this due to his own childhood which he recounts for us. For young 'Pikelet' a friendship with Ivan "Loonie" Loon sets him onto a path of risk and daring which is a world away from his quiet upbringing. Winton uses the title of this novel as a consistent theme throughout the book. Pikelet and Loonie begin with childhood games, like daring each other to hold their breath underwater for the longest. Loonie is an exciting figure, Pikelet sees him as 'solitary and feral' and notices that even at 12 he was 'more worldly than either of my parents and in a queer way they were intimidated by him'.

At each perilous undertaking - and with Loonie there were plenty of them - he always volunteered to go first. For a while I thought this was about honour, that it was his way of taking responsibility for whatever stupid idea he'd come up with - something gentlemanly, perhaps a mark of friendship - but eventually I saw that Loonie went first out of need; he was greedy about risk. He absolutely loved a dare. He would actually dare you to dare him. This wasn't optional. He required it of you, insisted on it.

This addictive quality is another theme running through the book. All of the characters in their own ways are craving satisfaction from something and unable to find it no matter how hard they try. When the two boys get into surfing they both discover the 'narcotic' feeling of endorphins rushing through their bodies. They are befriended by Sando, an enigmatic figure who becomes almost guru-like for them, the constant danger of being held down by the powerful waves they aim to ride in increasingly dangerous locations continues this toying with what keeps us alive. Sando's American girlfriend becomes another important figure for all of them as the lone female around which two pubescent boys and a man almost incapable of settling down revolve.

My first instinct on reading the book was that it was going to be one of those thrilling rides like Jed Mercurio's Ascent which maintains a thrilling pace and delivers the kind of giddy experience usually reserved for the cinema goer. Winton's descriptions of surfing certainly achieve that and there are some great touches like having one of their surfing haunts named Barney's, after the great white shark that shares the water with them. But he also raises the novel into some more interesting areas; not only describing the sport but seeking to understand the motivations behind those who pursue that kind of jeopardising thrill. There is also the portrait of male friendship and its disintegration which reminded me of William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf. A very different novel from a very different writer, using boxing as its physical centre, what the books have in common is an understanding of what can bring two friends together and the simple changes that can happen as boys become men. Returning to the book's title and major theme I was impressed by how many ways Winton was able to use it. Breathing is one thing that our body will do, and fight to do, without us having to think about it at all. It was refreshing to look again at something that we all take for granted and to consider the impulse to fight against the thing that keeps us alive.

More than once since then I've wondered whether the life threatening high jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to in the years of my adolescence were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath. It's easy for an old man to look back and see the obvious, how wasted youth and health and safety are on the young who spurn such things, to be dismayed by the risks you took, but as a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your body as exercising it on others.


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