(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 9, 2008)
“Could I do something gnarly, or was I just ordinary? I’ll bet my life that despite his scorn, Loonie was also [posing these questions to himself]. We didn’t know it yet, but we’d already imagined ourselves into a different life, another society, a state for which no raw boy has either words or experience to describe. Our minds had already gone out to meet it and we’d left the ordinary in our wake."
When a middle-aged EMT arrives at the scene of a “suicide” by a seventeen-year-old who has hanged himself, he knows instinctively that this is an accident and not a real suicide. The two girls are hunched on the couch downstairs, the boy’s father sports a broken collarbone, and the suicide site has been “sanitized,” well before the call to the EMTs, a clear indication to the arriving EMT that the boy was experimenting with auto-asphyxiation for its thrills and that he went too far.
Through flashbacks, the EMT, Brucie Pike (“Pikelet”) relives his own coming-of-age on the west coast of Australia in the 1960s and 1970s. A lonely boy leading a solitary life, he finds a companion, if not friend, in Ivan Loon (“Loonie”), with whom he shares his love of surfing. “How strange it was,” Pikelet remarks, “to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw and cared.” But the beauty of surfing quickly yields in importance to its excitement and its increasingly dangerous thrills. “There was never any doubt about the primary thrill of surfing, the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears. We didn’t know what endorphins were, but we quickly understood how narcotic the feeling was, and how addictive it became; from day one I was stoned from just watching,” Pikelet declares.
Tim Winton, Australia’s best known and most prolific contemporary author, takes the reader along on a series of “tests” which Pikelet and Loonie face as young teens. They prepare for their dangerous challenges by practicing holding their breaths for extraordinarily long periods of time so that they can dive deep and survive the boiling surf if they are upended during their most dangerous rides, and they force themselves to go the limit on every ride, no matter how frightening.
Soon the boys become disciples of middle-aged Billy Sanderson (“Sando”), a surfing guru who fears nothing and who takes them to remote and more dangerous sites where they can test their mettle. Regarding themselves as a “secret society of three,” they seek surfing “appointments with the undisclosed.” As they learn to “inoculate” themselves against the worst of their fears, Sando tells Pikelet and Loonie that “It’s not about us. It’s about you. You and the sea, you and the planet,” and they respond by practicing hard, obeying the training regimen set up by Sando, and believing that “what we did and what we were after…was the extraordinary.”
In their excitement about pushing themselves to the limits, none of the “cult” of three pays any heed to the idea that they could actually die by testing themselves in this way, believing instead that one becomes extraordinary only by facing fears and taking risks, and the bigger the risk, the better. “There was an intoxicating power to be had from doing things that no one else dared try,” Pikelet observes. Over time, he begins to become prideful, isolating himself almost completely from his school peers: “Wherever I went, I felt like the last person awake in a room of sleepers.”
As time passes and the boys discover women, they extend their love of thrills into the sexual arena. An older woman with whom Pikelet has a relationship introduces him to her own need for exotic thrills, and after a near disaster, Pikelet begins finally to question the relationship between excitement, thrills, risk, and death and what maturity really means. Does being a mature man mean giving up thrills and choosing to be “ordinary?” Is “extraordinary” a relative term bestowed on one person by other people who share the same goals? And how does one really become “extraordinary?” Ultimately confused, after thinking he has discovered all the answers, Pikelet must finally work out what is really important and what risks are really worth taking.
In spare prose which uses some of the most vivid action verbs ever included in a novel, Winton tells an exciting story which makes the seductive thrills of surfing comprehensible to the non-surfer. Pikelet, Loonie, and Sando clearly reveal who they are as humans—within the surfing milieu and within their private lives. Some of them grow in the course of the novel, and some do not. Clearly articulated, the life lessons which Winton illustrates evolve from the action of this unusual plot, and his style and structure emphasize their importance. In the conclusion Brucie Pike reviews his life at age fifty-two, finally putting his life as Pikelet-the-surfer into perspective. Tim Winton has created a western Australian coming-of-age novel, vastly different from that of Catcher in the Rye and other such novels in terms of its setting, but not so different, after all, in the boys’ discoveries of what makes men humans and what makes life worth living.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Breath at The New York Times(back to top)
(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel FEB 22, 2003)
So what did you play?
I mean, what kind of music?
Oh, I dunno. All kinds, I spose. Anything you could play on a verandah. You know, without electricity. Dirt music.
During the last ten days or so, I have been visiting western Australia. It was quite a glorious adventure. I would put my daughters to bed for the night, put on my pajamas, and pick up Tim Winton's Dirt Music, and it was almost magic -- I was down under.
I was introduced to White Point; a small fictionalized fishing community about one hour north of Perth, Australia. Before Australia became so accomplished at exporting, White Point was a shantytown. Then rock lobsters became a delicacy in Asia, and White Point became a community where "rich fishermen built pink villas and concrete slab bunkers that made their fathers hovels look pretty." Winton describes White Point as a beautiful seaside town on the coast of the Indian ocean." The luminous dunes, the island, the lagoon with its sea grass and coral outcrops, the low austere heath of the hinterland -- they were singular to even her suburban gaze."
Dirt Music is the story of three people- Georgie Jutland, a forty year old retired nurse who surfs the net and appreciates her vodka; Jim Buckridge, Georgie's lover, who is a successful fisherman and the "uncrowned prince" of White Point; and Luther Fox, the unluckiest outcast in White Point who is grieving the loss of his entire family and poaching lobster traps.
Georgie first notices Luther Fox one early morning when he's poaching. By coincidence, she breaks down on the road out of town and Luther Fox is the person who first drives by and helps her. The back of his truck is filled with iced down illegal fish and lobster. An instant attraction develops and during their affair, the tragic circumstances regarding the death of Fox's family comes out. Of course, White Point is a small town, therefore knowledge of their affair becomes local news before it has even really begun. Jim Buckridge gets wind of the affair, and since he's the "uncrowned prince" and Fox is the bad luck charm, Fox is the fellow forced out of town.
Tim Winton has a great talent in describing his characters. Besides, Georgie, Jim and Luther, we are introduced to a huge array of colorful people. There's Beaver, the White Point auto mechanic, who married the Asian mail-order bride. We also meet Georgie's younger sisters -- Ann, Judith and Margaret -- all who look at Georgie as their "wild, tomboy" sibling- "it was the shopping that finally cut Georgie off from the other Jutland women." Then there's Rusty, the morphine-addicted, one-legged surfer, who gave Luther a ride to Wittenoom, a deserted mining town.
Winton has a writing style that is intriguing, but definitely on target. I didn't notice until far into my reading that he doesn't use punctuation to delineate dialogue. There is a certain rhythm that I seemed to get into, as I was reading. I knew it was dialogue, but it is so subtle. Also, he describes the Australian landscape so extraordinarily well; I could see it in my mind perfectly. "Eventually, Fox coaches Rusty back onto the highway which climbs into the Opthalmia Ranges whose bluffs and peaks and mesas rise crimson, black, burgundy, terracotta, orange against the cloudless sky. Gully shadows are purple up there and the rugged layers of iron lie dotted with a greenish furze of spinifex." I wonder if the Australian department of tourism has thought about offering him employment.
But back to the rhythm that Winton uses. As I said, it's very subtle, but I found myself turning pages more quickly as I was getting closer to the climax of this tale. And my heartbeat was racing a bit more. I found I needed to put down the book with 100 pages to go, because it was extremely late and I knew that if I kept on reading, I was not going to get any sleep all. I had the feeling that every word that Winton chose was picked with great care, to bring about a feeling as much as a meaning to the sentences. I think it would be wonderful to hear Winton read parts of it aloud, at a book signing or something like that.
I stumbled onto this book because I decided I was going to read all of the Booker Prize shortlist nominations for last year. I was really interested because the online book group I belong to has a bunch of native Australians, who have nothing but wonderful things to say about Tim Winton. And now that I've read Dirt Music, Tim Winton has a Yank saying nothing but wonderful things about his writing. Dirt Music is excellent in my opinion -- Fair dinkum! What a great adventure!
- Amazon readers rating: from 48 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Dirt Music at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- An Open Swimmer (1982)
- Shallows (1984)
- Scission and Other Stories (1985)
- That Eye, The Sky (1986)
- Minimum of Two: Stories (1987)
- In the Winter Dark (1988)
- Cloudstreet (1991)
- Blood and Water: Stories (1993)
- The Riders (1994)
- Blueback: A Contemporary Fable (1997)
- Dirt Music (2001)
- The Turning: New Stories (September 2005)
- Breath (June 2008)
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- Official website for Tim Winton
- Wikipedia page on Tim Winton
- Contempory Writers page on Tim Winton
- Fan site on Tim Winton
- Dirt Music short-listed for Booker Prize
- SMH.au article on Tim Winton (May 2002)
- BBC News review of Dirt Music
- Guardian review of Breath
- LA Times review of Breath
- Independent reveiw of Breath
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About the Author:
Tim Winton was born in 1960 in Perth, Australia and grew up on the coast of Western Australia in the small country town of Albany. While attending Curtin University of Technology, he wrote his first novel, which won The Australian Vogel Literary Award and launched his writing career. His second novel won the Miles Franklin Award and his third novel, Cloudstreet, firmly established his economic future.
Two of his novels, The Riders and Dirt Music were shortlisted from the Booker Prize and are now being developed for film.
Winton has been named a Living Treasure by the National Trust and awarded the Centenary Medal for service to literature and the community.
He has lived in Italy, France, Ireland, and Greece and currently lives in Western Australia with his wife and three children.