A Pine Lime Splice of the surfing life
PEOPLE often speak of surfing and poetry in the same breath. They mean the sport is beautiful to watch, but the analogy is more correct than they know. Waves are as regular and inexorable as a poetic line, and can vary as widely in form and intensity. Surfers are as much subject to their chosen wave as a poet is to a particular verse form. They may stamp physical rather than metrical feet in making their progress, yet they still inscribe hieroglyphs in the onrushing line, mundane or exquisite according to their skill and imagination.
The point is worth labouring because Malcolm Knox’s new novel is not entirely what it seems. Yes, it is an ardent evocation of Australian surf culture, from the 1950s to the present: an encyclopedic act of social and historical recall projected, like an old homemovie, on to the life of a Queensland surfer of singular talent. But in The Life, Knox has taken a milieu barricaded by private language and codes designed to repel outsiders and wannabes, and in which the insiders’ Zen-like reverence for surfaces and the unarticulated act mock writerly eloquence, and made it the backdrop to a universal portrait of artistic obsession.
The fictional anti-hero of The Life is Australia’s greatest surfer. He is also a man crushed by genius, in flight from its incessant demands: Rimbaud in a riptide. Not that Dennis Keith, or DK as he is reverently known by the nation’s surfers, would have any inkling of the precocious French poet who abandoned the muse while still in his teens to become a gun-runner in 19thcentury Ethiopia. He is a human husk, absent of curiosity: a 58-year-old, 115kg obsessivecompulsive body emptied of the one thing — talent — that once animated him and gave him purchase on the world.
When we first meet DK he is living with his adoptive mother, Mo, in her Coolangatta retirement unit, his only occupation a daily walk to the corner milk bar to purchase a Pine Lime Splice and a can of Orange Tarax.
It is the unexpected appearance of a young woman who claims to be writing a profile for a surfing magazine that goads DK into a return to origins. She is a stranger yet familiar somehow, a tune he can’t quite put a name to. And it is the pluck with which she pursues the truth of his past that, for the first time in years, cracks him open. The determi- nation is hers, but the history we revisit is told through the filter of the old surfer’s egotism, his constricted focus.
This can be an infuriating and claustrophobic experience, though never a dull one: the beam cuts because it is narrow. We readers get to partake of his glory, too. And the excitement of a young man growing into full awareness of his gift provides The Life with some of its finest moments: You paddled out in your first heat of the main conness and ripped. Your back to the wave, you dropped in the pit, leant back and accelerated up the lip. Tossed up big rooster tails of spray. Carved out big sheets on your bottom turns. [Then] you switchfooted. You got up with your left foot at the tail, no leash, and your right foot forward. You carved the left-hander with your face to the wave, like a goofy-footer.