By Richard von Busack
One night on the job, an Australian paramedic in his early 50s encounters something that retrieves his submerged past. He, Bruce "Pikelet" Pike, grew up in a nowhere lumber town close to the coast in west Australia. Pike changes through his friendships: first with a troubled, risk-taking kid called Looney, later with a charismatic pro surfer nicknamed "Sando," who has abandoned the circuit and, finally, with the athlete's left-alone, crippled wife, Eva. Surfing takes place in a blade-thin realm between air and water; in Tim Winton's new novel, Breath , this separation symbolizes the difference between life and death—or rather, between wanting to live and wanting to die. Despite the potential richness of this kind of material, most surfers write novels about as well as most novelists surf. Here's the exception. Winton's brutally succinct and yet lyrical book excels in depicting natural phenomena like a 15-foot break in 3-foot water: "in fact there were times when the wave broke over no water at all." Or the experience of a wipeout: "Things went narrow—it was like looking through a letter box." The Aus slang is very pungent, too: in one passage, a Speedo bathing suit is referred to as a "Budgie-smuggler." It must be geography that keeps Winton (the author of 13 previous books) from being better known in the United States. The book turns anticlimactic in the finale, with some sketches of Pike's break-down years. These pages insist on something that male adolescents must believe and middle-aged males have to doubt: that it's possible to meet a lover in your youth whose fatal influence persists, decades after they're gone. (By Tim Winton; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 218 pages; $23 cloth)
Send a letter to the editor about this story.