Kook: What Surf­ing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catch­ing the Per­fect Wave by Peter Heller, Free Press, 326 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Michael Wade Simp­son

There are worse ways to in­dulge a midlife cri­sis than to take up surf­ing, but if you are Peter Heller — never mar­ried, straight, and mid-40s, a self-de­scribed (es­pe­cially to women) Den­ver-based “ad­ven­ture writer” — you do it full-out, with to­tal com­mit­ment, and then you write a book about it. Heller took six months, a mag­a­zine as­sign­ment to sweeten the deal (or steel his re­solve), and headed first for the crowded beaches of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, then in a camper van with a girl­friend down the Pa­cific coast of Baja Cal­i­for­nia and main­land Mex­ico, as far as Oax­aca, surf­ing at ev­ery pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity. The goal was to move from the hu­mil­i­at­ing sta­tus of be­ing a “kook,” or rank be­gin­ner, to that of a “real” surfer.

“Most sports, at first en­try, bal­ance the ini­tial strange­ness and dif­fi­culty with some im­me­di­ate re­wards. … Surf­ing is one of the only pur­suits on earth that can drub you into numb ex­haus­tion and blunt trauma time and again and give you noth­ing in re­turn; noth­ing but sand in your crotch, salt-stung eyes, banged tem­ple, chipped tooth, scream­ing back, and sun­burned ears.”

Still, Heller re­ports, there is the ocean, and there are the other surfers around who seem to have mas­tered the sport — and the sense that in midlife it is now or never. Plus, surf­ing is ad­dic­tive. Ev­ery­one says that.

“And you re­turn. You are glad to do it. In fact, you can think of noth­ing you’d rather do.”

Travel writ­ing can be a prov­ince of lon­ers and ro­man­tics, mis­fits of the self-ab­sorbed va­ri­ety, ones who write in or­der to sat­isfy a fix for ex­pe­ri­ence col­lect­ing. Heller is try­ing to break out of that cat­e­gory. Love is one of his themes here, but it’s hard to un­der­stand how his girl­friend can put up with him. She gamely ac­com­pa­nies him, even learns to surf, al­though she is not a sun per­son, a beach per­son, a wa­ter per­son, or a camp­ing per­son. At one point, she says to him, “I’m al­ways on four-wheel drive with you,” but he con­sid­ers it a com­pli­ment.

Be­yond get­ting up on a board, a daunt­ing chal­lenge for any surf­ing writer would be to de­scribe waves not once or twice but a hun­dred times. Heller man­ages to do so. Each beach, each rolling line of break­ers, each sun­set, and each time on a board is ren­dered in prose that stays im­pres­sively fresh — for 326 pages. “There’s a time in the late morn­ing when the off­shore wind lies down and the sea be­comes dark and smooth. More oil than glass. A molten mir­ror that moves the light in slid­ing neg­a­tives, sheen and shadow slip­ping past each other with the un­du­la­tions of the swell. Only min­utes: the ocean hold­ing her breath. Catch a wave in this hia­tus and it is like skat­ing down an oil-coated slide. Smooth. And then the sea breathes out.”

For­tu­nately, Heller’s ob­ses­sion with surf­ing is bal­anced with his abil­ity to make friends with in­ter­est­ing peo­ple and also his re­spect for na­ture. Many of the char­ac­ters whose paths the two cross are crusty, limp­ing, hard-drink­ing surf vet­er­ans who have set them­selves up as lif­ers in surf shops and schools wher­ever ex­cep­tional surf can be found. Still, Heller man­ages to find the sweet­ness, the com­mon love for the ocean, and the hu­mor in these folks. There is never a word of con­de­scen­sion com­ing from the author’s “welle­d­u­cated” mouth.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ism is an­other of Heller’s ob­ses­sions. He ob­serves ev­i­dence of a dy­ing fish­ing in­dus­try dur­ing his time on the coast, the man­grove swamps be­ing dec­i­mated to make way for gringo re­sorts and beach-hog­ging condo com­plexes, and even ev­i­dence of a kind of dead zone, a foamy gray tide caused by warm­ing seas. Even more dis­turb­ing is the side trip Heller takes to Ja­pan, where he takes part in a covert op­er­a­tion to call in­ter­na­tional me­dia at­ten­tion to the mass slaugh­ter of dol­phins and pi­lot whales in the re­mote coastal port of Taiji, Ja­pan.

The tra­jec­tory of the book leads, in­evitably, to­ward the per­fect wave, the per­fect ride, the per­fect moment, or some such po­etic apoth­e­o­sis. To Heller’s credit, he ends things back in Den­ver, where he lives on a lake, and oc­ca­sion­ally, on sum­mer morn­ings, pad­dles around on a surf­board, missing all of it. Kook may not cre­ate many new surfers; it’s too clear in its portrayal of the com­pet­i­tive na­ture of the surfers them­selves, who spend way too much time let­ting testos­terone get in the way of any spir­i­tual growth, not to men­tion the pure dif­fi­culty of learn­ing the sport. It is Heller’s writ­ing, how­ever, that makes the book worth read­ing. Peter Heller signs copies of “Kook” at a 2 p.m. launch on Satur­day, July 24, at Gar­cia Street Books, 376 Gar­cia St.; call 986-0151.

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