Dark po­etry in the ocean

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ker­ryn Goldswor­thy

‘ 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

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