Kem Nunn is the progenitor of a unique style of fiction loosely referred to as “surf noir.” He hit the literary scene in the early ’80s with his first surf-stunner, Tapping the Source, which has become a beloved work of cult fiction regardless of its limited availability.
If you ask ANY surfer why he or she surfs, chances are they will all give you a similar answer; that there is a zen-like peace that comes from the intensity of surfing; the perfect union of body, mind, spirit, and nature. Nunn certainly captures this glory in his novels, but he doesn’t shy away from the occasional dark side of surf culture, particularly in his native Southern California and all of the misbegotten beach ghettos between San Diego and the Mexican border. This stretch of land may boast some of the best surf on the planet, but it is also home to vicious gang members, junkies, rapists, and down-and-out surf pros who have lost their way and succombed to lives of quiet, drug-addled desperation. This is the California of Nunn’s novels, and these are the characters that bring his powerful stories to life, reminding us that the grass is not always greener, and that even in one’s darkest hour, there is always a chance for redemption and peace.
Tijuana Straits gives us the split perspective of two protagonists. We have Sam (the Dove) Fahey, a meth-addicted, alcoholic worm farmer, (not to mention, former surf champion), who lives alone near the Cerro Colorado valley, (a wasteland among the smog of borderland-Mexico). His only neighbors are random packs of feral dogs. We also have Magdalena Rivera, a political activist from Mexico who has devoted her life to fighting environmental pollution in Mexican cities, and also to helping women in need, women who are victims of Tijuana’s ultra violence. The novel’s antagonist comes in the form of Armando Santoya, a drug-crazed madman hellbent on revenge against Magdalena, whose activism he blames for the loss of his wife and child. Armando’s obsession with killing her takes him across the border into California where, with the help of his hedonistic cronies, he commits many ghastly violent crimes, stopping at nothing on his hunt for Magdalena.
One morning during one of his routine drug runs, Fahey finds Magdalena on the American side of the border, badly beaten and near dead. Although he has become accustomed to having zero human contact, Fahey still feels the need to help Magdalena and nurse her back to health. Magdalena, in return, helps him come to grips with the man he used to be versus the man he has become. They must fight for their lives as Armando and his gang close in on them, but during their struggle, they open themselves to one another and to the seemingly unforgiving environment in which they live.
Every character in this wonderfully gritty novel is very organic, where even a monster like Armando is essentially a victim of a world gone awry. Kem Nunn possesses a rare talent in using society’s castaways as a means of gaining our sympathy, while also paving their paths for redemption. Also, you will REALLY want to hit some waves after reading one of this books.
Click here to find this book in the WCPL catalog.