A Pine Lime Splice of the surf­ing life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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.

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