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In the climatic pursuit scene, a human demon wearing a Darth Vader plastic helmet chases the husk of a former blonde-surfer type donning a tattered bill cap with a smiling worm on its crest. It's the culmination of ‘tudes, dude, in this novel not so much about surfing as it is about the despoiling of Southern California's Eden-like natural landscape where two quite opposite countries and cultures bordershare common greeds represented by the maquiladoras' insistence on cheap, cheesy products-for-profit while smugly exploiting ecology and culture, human dignity and health. Nunn propels his characters with forces—both active and dormant—of will—both self-styled and external—that triangulate between homicidal butchery, environmental activism, and sour resignation. It's quite a set to get outside on, and, although the breakers are familiar as on any beach, this ride is awash with atmospheric detail, seasoned insight, a caustic sense of humor, and even a touch of Gnostic mysticism.
As a third-generation Californian born in 1948 and growing up in the Pomona valley, Nunn knows his landscape. His most celebrated novels— Tapping the Source, The Dogs of Winter, Tijuana Straits —have revolved around surfing and its self-created, unique sub-culture. Although he carves his story through the crime genre, this is not Jim Rockford turning in his Camero for a longboard. Neither is it a wipeout of Jeff Spicoli bakeheadedness, but more like Upton Sinclair visioned through Elmore Leonard's Ray-Bans. There's a constant strain of injustices, absurdities, and gross insensitivities that drip sarcasm and irony into Nunn's red tide vision, but it's the passion of his activism that has apparently kept him off the bestseller charts next to the jocular, black comedic, and ultimately vapid antics of Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey. Nunn's humor is about as laugh-out-loud as a jellyfish sting.
Critics have netted his work as surfnoir, although I don't know of any other authors occupying this sub-genre. A snappy label like this is an obvious marketing tool used to direct readers into appropriate niches. As a guide, it can be useful. But, making it referential to a whole genre is to imbibe it in critical definition, which is as misleading as the term noir is misunderstood.
Surely, Tijuana Straits is too genre-bound to be a novel of social import like, say, The Grapes of Wrath. This is emblematic of 21st century America's interests. The procedures, machinations, dispositions, and fancies of unlawfulness fixate the public outside of itself, externalizing the act with overwhelming noises and imperious dialogues that rivet us to the TV or silverscreen. It discourages most internal introspection or personal insight that could be useful or revelatory to the society in general. Imagine the 1973 movie American Graffiti with a crime theme. Now, imagine any American popular culture vehicle of today without a crime theme.
Consequently, the demarcation of noir has changed. It's become a frowny-face sticker for most creative outpourings that are, ah, downbeat in nature. It seems so over-saturated as to be almost synonymous with Goth or Batcaver posturings. It has become a label and needs to be de-commissioned as a modern genre.
I chalk the noir * acreage into three, distinct sections: Classic Noir, starting with Cain's Double Indemnity of 1936 to Welles' Touch of Evil of 1958; Neo Noir, altering the classical atmosphere with existential tone as in Thompson's The Killer Inside Me of 1952 or Towne's Chinatown of 1974; Neo Not-Noir, of which Tijuana Straits is a good example.
The survey flag for Neo Not-Noir was Tarantino's Pulp Fiction of 1994. By treating Fate—and thereby all Faith as an epistemology—with cosmic absurdity, it allowed the bellyache of Black Comedy to influence a genre known and defined as a bleak, black pit of despair without redemption. Before Tarantino, comic relief in a noir threnody was usually exemplified by a world-weary smirk. Now, theatres are filled with the guffawing of audiences to amusing moments in 1996's Fargo or 2005's Sin City.
Canned laughter could very well be the sharpest tool on America's workbench of denialisms, but it shouldn't do a lot of business in the noir store. Fortunately, in Tijuana Straits, it does not. The occasional humor is either goofy or slyly sarcastic. On the other hand, a grin lets in Hope, which is an attitudinal adjustment toward better things for the future. Nunn follows along and paddles away from the sour water on the last wave. This noirvel (don'tcha just love this bastardization?) buoys itself back up and is ultimately waxed with enough temerity to shudder off its built-up spume of misery, despair, and self-flagellation. In true noirworld (and, more likely, the real world), the resigned hero Sam Fahey—and everybody with him—would have drowned during his rescue attempt. Nunn, however, shows his trim earlier on when Magdalena “in the absence of hope” after being sucked into the shoreline fence at Las Playas by the deadly current, is saved by “a spectral figure” (Scribner PB, ISBN 0743279824, c.2004, p.38) who shows up at the end of the novel to be identified. Clearly, salvation is possible. Nunn wisely foists off the confining shroud of traditional noir, and, in doing so, turns his tale from Love swamped to Redemption fulfilled, bilged with not-noir platitudes. To make sure no one misses his balancing act, Nunn concludes with the slapstick antics of techno-professional surfers underestimating real, hardcore water, and the off-stage, un-heroic death of The Gull himself, due to an obscure, water-borne infection. Irony's last corrida is uptempo here, not just a final dirge vibrating off the Reaper's scythe.
In the end, it's the dopey Plexiglas sticks of Surfhenge; those iconic desiderata to the challenge of merging with Nature instead of depredating, controlling, or arrogantly calling ourselves its “caretaker”. Because, even among the “unfathomable din of fear and corruption, [and] the wellspring of barbarous histories” (p.6), the lofty hankerings of courage, ability, and determination of the “waterman” (p.116) are still in evidence.
* Noir is, first and foremost, an annotation from French film criticism of the ‘50s era. By mixing examples of film noir and roman noir in this didacticism, I am merely hitching it to the rolling thunder of Popular Culture.