(Reviewed by Poornima Apte OCT 5, 2004)>
In Tijuana Straits, a down-and-out surfer, Sam Fahey, is trying to put his life back together again running a worm farm and doing odd jobs for the environmental protection services. It is during one of these assignments that he runs into Magdalena, an immigrant from Mexico who literally washes ashore on the California beach that Fahey patrols. It turns out that she is being chased down by a villain on the Mexican side of the border. Magdalena is an attorney investigating the environmental violations of big American companies and she suspects that her nosing around in their affairs is the reason behind the plot to kill her. She seeks refuge in Fahey’s silence and in his farm only to have Armando Santoya, the villain, chase her down at the American side of the border.
Nunn creates believable character portraits of all his participants including one for Armando Santoya, a person we learn, is only the product of his own tragic circumstances. Sam Fahey too has a fractured past, but he chooses to drown it all in beer and by tending to his little farm. Magdalena eventually draws him to her cause and towards the end, Fahey finds more than one way to redeem himself.
A lot of Nunn’s writing reads taut and wired for the movies. In fact, towards the end there is an extended chase scene, which is absolutely cinematic in its description. Sometimes the violence seems a bit much but it never goes over the top. Quietly occupying prime real estate in the novel are the waves themselves, specifically a rare formation called “Mystic Peak,” which Fahey is eager to conquer.
Nunn has mentioned in interviews that something specific to surfing culture tends to have surfers lionize their legends. Sam the Gull Fahey was himself an object of worship. And Sam is mentored by a surrogate father figure, Hoddy Younger, a legit surfing legend who eventually falls victim to Alzheimer’s.
Tijuana Straits is a fast, gripping read and yes, it would be worth a look even if one were not a surfer, due to its environmental message. But one gets the impression that the book would occupy hallowed ground on many a surfer’s bookshelf and to get the most out of the novel, to empathize with Sam Fahey, one would pretty much need to be a surfer.
A quick note about the proofreading in the novel: there are quite a few places in the book where grammatical or typographical errors have been left unchecked. While these might not qualify as negatives against the book, they certainly do get irritating and one wishes closer attention had been paid to gaffes such as this: “If one were to feel violated and diminished by each there were be little of oneself left to go around.”
The biggest allure of Tijuana Straits is that the primary force in the novel is not the protagonist, even if he is every bit as enigmatic as a legit surfing legend—it is the one massive wave that has yet to be ridden and conquered. Mystic Peak beckons and pounds throughout the novel. The raw gritty force of nature is at times tangible enough in Nunn’s vivid writing to make one smell the salty air and feel the foam spray on one’s face. Tijuana Straits will go down as yet another impressive contribution to the surfer genre. For real-life surfers, Kem Nunn is probably every bit as a legend as one of his fictional surfing heroes.
- Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Tapping the Source (1984)
- Unassigned Territory (1986)
- Pomona Queen (1992)
- The Dogs of Winter (1997)
- Tijuana Straits (2004)
- Chance (February 2014)
Movies from books:
- Point Break (loosely based on Tapping the Source) (1991)
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- Wikipedia page on Kem Nunn
- Blowhards discussion on Kem Nunn and Neo-Noir
- Trashotron review of Unassigned Territory
- Tangled Web review of The Dogs of Winter
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About the Author:
Kem Nunn spent his youth in Sourthern California surfing and working on boats. He was nearly 30 when he went to college to study writing. Tapping the Source was nominated for the American Book Award's Best First Fiction. After gaining confidence from his first novel, Nunn moved to New York City to live a writer's life and study at Columbia University. Within a year he was back in California, living near the ocean.
His next novel, Unassigned Territory, was nominated for the 1988 Bram Stoker award and Pomona Queen was nominated for the 1993 Edgar Awards. He has also written screenplays including "Wild Things" and "The Ransom," both directed by John McNaughton.