January 28th, 2011 / 12:32 pm
Author Spotlight

Kem Nunn’s Surf Noir Novels

It’s the middle of winter. Everything’s dormant or dead. It’s raining a lot up here in Oregon, as it always does for half the year. I was walking around in my heavy winter coat, grey clouds overhead, and got to thiking about the curative warmth of sunshine, and the golden sexuality of beaches, which left me nostalgic for summer, which got me thinking about the way Nunn’s surf novels had carried me through a similarly dark Northwest winter in 2005, and about how it was pretty tragic how few people seemed to know about Nunn’s books, which, even carrying the bordering-on-corny “surf novel” tag, are dark and deeply engrossing.

Kem Nunn (short for Kemp) grew up in the Angelean interior town of Pomona, a third-generation Californian. After piddling away his 20s, Nunn studied writing at UC Irvine and in 1984 published Tapping the Source. Centered on a naive teenager swept up in one surf crew’s Mafia-ish, pornographic-druggie-biker underbelly, Tapping the Source not only spawned the term “surf noir” for its dark themes and gripping narrative style, but it single-handedly saved what was previously a joke genre. With surf-romance schlock like James Houston’s A Native Son of the Golden West and patronizingly formulaic nonfiction like Caught InsideIn Search of Captain Zero, and, of course, Gidget, surf books have always occupied the lowest rung of commercial publishing, somewhere between niche market how-to guides and pure pulp. As the product of a quieter, once rural Southern Cal, Kem saw surfing as a metaphor “for what we had here and what we have lost.”

While the title might pass for a pseudo-spiritual, self-help book, Tapping the Source was a National Book Award finalist for first fiction. Robert Stone called it “The all-time great surfing novel…in the same league as the best of Chandler and James Crumley.” Some old, now-defunct magazine called the Saturday Review crowed: “What Hemingway’s Nick Adams did for fishing, Kem Nunn does for surfing.” Other books followed–Unassigned TerritoryPomona Queen, all dark, all fusing the narrative elements of mystery with the careful treatment of literature–but his surf novels were Nunn’s high water mark. Following The Dogs of Winter, Kem closed his California surfing trilogy with 2004’s Tijuana Straights and began writing episodes for HBO’s Deadwood and the quickly-cancelled John from Cincinnati. (I never saw it. I can’t afford HBO.)

Walking here in my heavy winter coat, grey clouds overhead, I just got to thinking about all this and wanted to briefly relay the way Nunn transformed the lowly surf novel into high art, and how much I wish it was summer.


Aaron Gilbreath has written essays, some forthcoming, for The Gettysburg Review, Cincinnati Review, The Normal School, Maisonneuve, Mississippi Review, Alimentum, PopMatters, and New Ohio Review.

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  1. deadgod

      Tapping the Source was a pretty big deal 25 years ago – don’t you still see copies in used-book stores?

      Nunn did communicate loss well: the innocence (or at least the not-yet of evil), the ‘fall’, the way memory (or forensic reconstruction) of that lost world affects decision and action in this continuing-to-fall one. For me, the story’s plot and meanings were too deliberately explained to call it “great”, but I remember sharing the distress as the protagonist figures out [no spoiler].

  2. Aaron G

      hey deadgod, i get your complaint about it. parts of some of nunn’s novels feel a bit heavy-handed, whacking the reader of the head with “plot points” and highlighted meaning, etc, but to me their overall effect makes them great, at least greater than their trivial errors. (perfect, though, they are not.)

      and yeah, i do still occassionally see the book around in used-book stores, but not as much as i see other authors’ books. (larry brown’s, for instance.)

  3. alan

      Kemp is pretty short.

  4. Bradley Sands

      John from Cincinnati was fantastic.

  5. deadgod

      – not if you’re Shawn.

      Or desperate to evacuate your bladder.

  6. curt

      sweet, thanks for this

  7. Aaron G

      i’ll definitely check it then, bradley. thanks.

      you bet curt!

  8. Brian Hurley

      Surfing doesn’t lend itself to good storytelling. It’s strictly personal and very open-ended. I think that’s why Tapping the Source feels so charged: it puts the imagery and excitement of surfing to good use in a predictable literary form.


  9. Twodogsloving

      The skinny kid walked out on stage straightening his even thinner tie, wearing shoes at least 2 sizes too big. He took one last gulp that was excruciatingly felt by everyone standing stagefront, sending that Adam’s apple way, way down. He nodded at the combo, who were getting a big charge out of it all, winking at one another with “check this one out” smirks. They ran through the intro and he nervously began crooning “Love Me Tender” in a somewhat shaky voice at first, then transformed it into a voice that simply could not have been his own, smoother than Elvis and sexier than Ricky Nelson. In that moment he pulled himself out of total obscurity and thus became the one and only “Johnny Magic”. The entire place was on fire, the uptight musicians were giving him a standing O, and all the young girls were experiencing their first episode of “Beatlemania”, although this event occurred while those particular gentlemen were still gigging bars in Liverpool. Go Johnny, go. Sneaky Pete is proud.

  10. Surf Novels |

      […] HTMLGIANT there’s a brief appreciation for Kem Nunn’s classic surf novel Tapping the Source. It’s a great book to escape with, in […]