Dark poetry in the ocean
‘ I’ VE nearly drowned several times, which some people would say was not nearly close enough. But I was sort of interested by the idea of how close you get,’’ Tim Winton said at the beginning of his 2004 interview with Andrew Denton on ABC’s Enough Rope .
Denton unerringly picked this remark out of the general introductory chat and asked Winton to enlarge on it.
‘‘ I was interested in the limits of things,’’ he replied. ‘‘ We used to dive as deep as we could . . . we were always pushing ourselves. And I don’t know what that was about except maybe feeling what it was like to be mortal, you know, feeling what it was like to have things in jeopardy.’’
Breath is about jeopardy, about mortality and its boundaries. This for a Christian writer is not an unlikely subject, and neither is the preoccupation with searching and questing that Winton has said is common to most of his characters. His own formative years as a swimmer and surfer and his well- documented, lifelong passion for the ocean provide not just the material but also, almost, the medium for the events of the story.
It begins with the narrator, a 50- year- old paramedic with the quintessentially Australian name of Bruce, recounting an ambulance call- out to deal with the body of a 17- year- old boy found hanged in his bedroom.
It’s clear that the boy’s mother has been interfering with the scene; by the time the paramedics arrive, it looks like a suicide, but Bruce knows better.
‘‘ I know the difference between teenage suicide and a fatal abundance of confidence. I know what a teenage boy looks like when he’s strangled himself for fun.’’
The bereaved mother, he muses, would be ashamed either way, but has apparently decided to be less ashamed of suicide than of accidental death by auto- erotic asphyxiation: ‘‘ I sit there a minute and think of those poor bastards sanitising the scene before we showed up. The mother sitting there, trying to choose one shame over the other.’’ It’s impossible at this point not to think of the death of Michael Hutchence, officially pronounced suicide but widely believed to have been the alternative. Hutchence was born the same year as Winton — 1960 — and it’s hard
Breath By Tim Winton Hamish Hamilton, 224pp, $ 45
to imagine, reading this book, that Winton has not given his death a certain amount of thought.
This accidental hanging episode is the trigger for Bruce’s recollections of his own childhood and youth, which make up the rest of the novel. It’s a fruitless and counterproductive activity to criticise writers for not writing the books you wish they’d written, especially in the case of a novel as accomplished and powerful as this one, but I have to admit to initial readerly disappointment: it seemed for the first seven pages as though Winton was going to write a whole novel, albeit a relatively short one, about a 50- year- old man living a life of action and emergency while internally sorting through the carnage he is regularly called out to help clean up, looking for order and meaning. The opening scene does this, and is quite wonderful.
But a major gear- change is required once the reader realises that this opening episode is merely a prelude to memory; from this point the novel reverts to the story of Bruce’s early years, his passion for swimming and surfing, his heroworship of a legendary surfer called Sando who lives nearby, and his singular sex education at the hands of Sando’s partner, a bitter, damaged woman almost twice his age.
Bruce lives in the small town of Sawyer, on a river miles from the sea; the nearest town of any size is the fictional port of Angelus, where much of Winton’s other fiction is set. His surname is Pike, hence his very Wintonesque nickname of Pikelet, which is what everyone other than his parents calls him; while his father hates the ocean and forbids him to go near it, he spends as much time as he can in the river. His friend Ivan Loon, the publican’s son, is inevitably — and appropriately — called Loonie; he’s also a water rat, and they become friends through their deepdiving, breath- holding risks in the river: ‘‘ We scared people, pushing each other harder and further until we scared ourselves.’’
In defiance of his father, Pikelet eventually makes his way to the ocean, where he watches the surfers and is immediately hooked: ‘‘ I couldn’t have put it into words as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men doing something beautiful.’’
Then he and Loonie are singled out by the surfer Sando as acolytes and apprentices. Sando is in flight from the ordinary and encourages them in risk- taking behaviours, teaching them the finer points of surfing and introducing them to various
murderous and little- known breaks, including the habitat of a white pointer called Barney.
Pikelet is eventually seduced by Sando’s partner Eva, a former champion skier with a wrecked knee, someone who shares the adrenalin addiction from which all the other main characters in this book seem to suffer, and who introduces Pikelet to dangerous sex games. Like Sando the surfer and Loonie the crazy friend, Eva has a significant name: she’s the principal feminine presence in the book, and one who, like her biblical near- namesake, is implicitly responsible through her sexual wiles for the lasting damage done. Readers who have been bothered in the past by Winton’s representation of women and the feminine will not be reassured by this.
Only the briefest sketch is given of Pikelet’s life between his teenage affair with Eva and his 50- year- old self, but the hints he offers are the more disturbing for not being spelled out: a troubled personality, a broken marriage, voluntary incarceration, a full- on breakdown and retreat. But what emerges is a character who has eventually found a way to harness his interior excesses, to manage the damage and turn the appetite for danger to positive effect: ‘‘ For a good while I feared excitement. But I found ways through that. I discovered something I was good at, something I could make my own. I am hell’s own paramedic. When the shit hits the fan, I’m on, and people are glad to see me.’’ Within the Christian framework of Winton’s world view, this seems like a particularly pragmatic form of redemption: finding a way not so much to transcend as to accommodate damage and turn it to good account.
Winton is so accomplished and experienced a writer by now that his finely honed technical skills are practically invisible.
You don’t notice, for example, the stealth by which the voice of Pikelet is gradually introducing you to the language and vocabulary of the surfing subculture.
The allegorical level of the story does not intrude on, or protrude from, the literal level, and you subconsciously absorb the rich haul of ideas about parenthood, friendship, breathing and damage, rather than having them spelled out for you. Nothing is oversimplified; even the unbearably sad notion of growing up as the loss or withdrawal of grace, however much it might underlie this book, isn’t the last or the only word.
Still occasionally surfing at 50, Bruce can say, ‘‘ I slide down the long green walls into the bay to feel what I started out with, what I lost so quickly and for so long: the sweet momentum, the turning force underfoot, and those brief, rare moments of grace.’’
Kerryn Goldsworthy is an Adelaide writer and critic.
Breath, by Tim Winton, is out on May 1.
Sweet danger: Tim Winton’s Breath explores jeopardy,
Not drowning, writing: Winton
mortality, friendship, damage and a life framed by the strange beauty of extreme surfing