Review: Tim Winton's Breath - surfing, growing up and the Aussie male
Breath tracks the emergence of extreme sport through a lead character who wonders whether his adolescent adventures were just a 'rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath'
by Tim Winton
Anyone preparing to travel to Australia should read Tim Winton before touching a guidebook, newspaper or parochial antipodean expatriate. And any writer who turns to 'questions of identity' after an empty search for material might look at the rich novels, short stories, children's books and non-fiction Winton has found in taciturn white males from one-pub towns on the coast of Western Australia.
Considered a national treasure, he enjoys the advances and sales of a superstar, as well as two mentions on Booker Prize shortlists. But you won't see him in the media or at festivals beyond the few weeks around the release of each book. Since writing his first published novel at 19, Winton has worked quietly and rigorously, away from the literary cocktail circuit in Australia's eastern states.
Breath, his ninth novel, is an excellent introduction to one of the best living authors. We see a true writer who trusts his powers of description and feels no need to tamper with a novelistic vehicle as well travelled as the coming-of-age tale.
Bruce 'Pikelet' Pike is 'an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I've made' who judges 'every joyous moment, every victory and revelation' against the moment he first rode a wave on a surfboard as a 12-year-old. He is 'a bad communicator, a closed book' who 'lost a marriage to silence' but feels the need to risk boring the reader with the story of his childhood.
Pikelet explains the compulsions of Australian men who avoid talking about beauty, preferring to mention skill, courage and luck, but who surf for the thrill 'of doing something graceful'.
Breath tracks the emergence of extreme sport and the young men and women who wreck their bodies or deflate their souls when forced to remain in the standard world. It asks whether we can hold on to the energy of teenagers revolting against ordinariness.
The adult Pikelet is a paramedic familiar with the look of shock on the faces of babies taking their first breaths. He has seen patients having air dragged into them 'with such effort that the stuff could be as thick and heavy as honey'. He is more surprised by the 'enigma of respiration' - how within a few breaths 'the whole procedure is normalised, automatic. In a whole lifetime you might rarely give it another thought.'
As children, Pikelet and his mate Loonie cling to branches on the bottom of a river to test their lungs. They practise deep diving to prepare for strife in the surf. At night, Pikelet listens to the snoring of his cautious father, whose apnoea regularly stops his breathing until he lets out 'a braying gasp, like a man who'd seen a ghost - perhaps the ghost of himself'.
He wonders whether his adolescent adventures were just a 'rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath'. He observes: 'As a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your own body as exercising it on others.'
The bravery of Pikelet and Loonie as they teach themselves to surf in the early 1970s attracts Sando, a worldly surfer who encourages them to worship him. He shows them swells no one else has ridden, introduces them to literature and his partner, Eva, an aerial skier with a ruined knee who can no longer bear to live near snow. Incapable of testing the limits on her skis, she dabbles in auto-erotic asphyxiation.
'There was something careless about her that I mistook for courage in the same way I misread Sando's vanity for wisdom,' says Pikelet.
Winton's descriptions of surfing are exhilarating and simple: 'I only got to my feet from instinct, but there I suddenly was, upright and alive, skittering in front of all that jawing mess with my little board chattering underfoot ... Yet for all this mad acceleration there was still something ponderous about the movement of the water ... hectic noise, immense force driven up through the feet and knees, all in a kind of stoptime.'
He is even better at capturing the Aussie male. Butch writers such as Cormac McCarthy stick to attaining masculinity by boiling away exposition and allowing their characters to speak only from the corners of the mouth. Winton's blokes look you in the eye to tell their baggy stories plainly and directly, and for as long it takes.