Kem Nunn, ‘Tapping the Source’ (1984)

tapping the sourceI can’t surf, but it’s one of those sports that has always held some attraction – more for the lifestyle, if I’m honest. The beach life, the partying, the clothes, the music. Especially the music. As John Williams says in his survey of US crime fiction Back to the Badlands, ‘never before or since has a major musical act been so identified with a sport as the Beach Boys with surfing… In a world where rock’n’roll was cool, sport was the epitome of not cool. Except for surfing, and maybe that’s because surfing was less a sport than an image of utopia, the American dream written on the waves.

Williams devotes a chapter of his book to writer Kem Nunn, author of a trilogy of surfing books of which Tapping the Source is the first. I read the interview with Nunn some time back, and whilst interested in what he had to say didn’t give him a second thought. I picked up a second hand copy of his later book Pomona Queen a year or two back, out of surprise more than anything else; I just wasn’t expecting anything by Nunn to appear in a Staffordshire charity shop. But I’ve still yet to crack it open.

Then Nunn came into my head last week, when I went to London for a James Ellroy Q&A. Whilst there, I took the opportunity to visit one of my favourite bookshops. Skoob Books is within walking distance of Euston station, and located in a packed basement. It’s one of those places where supply outstrips demand, and books compete for space on shelves. Groaning trolleys are placed everywhere; like one of those sliding tile puzzles, myself and the other customers had to keep moving them around to get to the heavily laden shelves beyond.

This suggests that Skoob isn’t well organised, but it is. Just inside the door there’s an excellent crime fiction section, including one bookcase filled with nothing but vintage ‘green’ Penguins. I could have spent a lot more than I did, but I stayed focused and eventually came away with James Sallis’s The Killer is Dying, an original 1964 Penguin edition of Durrenmatt’s The Pledge (a book I am slightly obsessed with, and have already reviewed here) and the No Exit Press’s 1998 reprinting of Tapping the Source. Nunn’s book felt satisfyingly chunky when I picked it up. The decision to buy it was sealed when I looked on the back cover; next to the barcode and ISBN, I saw that the genre it had been assigned to was ‘Surf Noir’. Sold.

Satisfying is a good word as far as Tapping the Source is concerned. It’s a terrifically well-written novel, about a young man called Ike Tucker who travels to California in search of his missing sister Ellen. Whilst there, he becomes absorbed by the local surfing community, learning to surf himself and coming under the influence of the guru-like Hound Adams – one of the men implicated in Ellen’s disappearance.

What’s so appealing about Ike is that he starts the novel entirely unprepared for the quest in front of him. He is eighteen but in reality still a child; he lives in the desert with his uncle and grandma, having previously been abandoned by his mother. Ike’s youthfulness mean that those around him seek to exert their will over and to control him. This is apparent from the novel’s very first scene, when a young surfer (in a spaceship-like white Camaro with surfboards strapped to the roof) arrives looking for Ellen’s brother, and with information to pass on about her disappearance. Tellingly, despite Ike being the one who the stranger has come to see, he says little – instead, the questions fall to his uncle, Gordon, who speaks on his behalf.

Gordon is also quick to dismiss Ike’s plans to go in search of his sister. Not only can he not handle his own motorcycle – ‘On his only attempt to ride it, he had dumped it in a gravel lot and driven a foot peg halfway through his ankle‘ – but  Gordon’s view is that Ellen deserves whatever fate befell her. ‘That girl’s been headed for a bad end since she learned to walk,‘ he says at one point. ‘Don’t stick your neck out too far looking for her.’

But Ike is determined to find Ellen, and once in Huntingdon Beach he falls under the spell of the enigmatic and seductive Hound Adams. Like his uncle, Adams also exerts his control over Ike; and Ike willingly falls as he believes it will help him discover what happened to his sister. But as the book progresses it becomes clear just how much Adams is using Ike; and his dreams of escaping from the confines of regular society are instead revealed to be a more insidious form of straitjacket.

kem nunnNunn’s portrait of the Huntington Beach community is telling, and based on his own knowledge and experiences of the surfing towns on this part of the California coast. This is a world gone sour – whilst the surfers seem lean, smiling and happy, there is a darkness lying under the surface. During his first trip into the water on a board Ike is punched in the face for getting too close to a fellow surfer, and the Darwinian struggle to catch the best waves is well drawn and totally believable.

Violence is never far away in Tapping the Source, and is motivated by old enmities and rivalries which go back years, and which Ike learns more about as his quest to find Ellen continues. The book is very much about Ike coming of age, taking control of his life and learning that the freedom of adulthood also brings its own responsibilities. The final resolution, when it comes, never feels superficial or unsatisfactory. This is a book too complex for a bland happy ending; and whilst Ike has learnt a great deal during his journey it is not over. Rather, like the endless waves that Nunn so lovingly describes in his book, there will always be new peaks to conquer.


    • Yes. Not seen the film so can’t comment, but I have read elsewhere that ‘Point Break’ seems to borrow heavily/rip off wholesale parts of Nunn’s novel. Certainly, whenever I pictured the character of Hound Adams I had Patrick Swayze (in full-on mullet mode) swimming around in my head.

      • Certainly, whenever I pictured the character of Hound Adams I had Patrick Swayze (in full-on mullet mode) swimming around in my head.

        You mean, he’d fell off his board, like?

        I’m berating my daughter bitterly for never having taken us to Skoob when we’ve visited her in London. (I mean, we introduced her to the Petersfield Bookshop, dammit!) and am demanding she make amends next time. The place sounds idyllic.

  1. It’s one of my favourites. They used to have a beautiful shop in a Victorian arcade close to the British Museum, but they moved out – probably because of the ridiculous rent. I was distraught at the time, but actually I think I prefer the new one now. It’s incredibly comforting to step down into it – like some enormous book-womb!

  2. It’s incredibly comforting to step down into it

    I know what you mean. There’s an s/h basement bookshop in Edinburgh’s Leith Walk just like that: when me and mine go there it tends to be a long stay, and we exit laden into a world we have to become reaccustomed to.

    All is made easier, mind you, by the fact that just up the road there’s this true fab Nepalese restaurant . . . 🙂

  3. […] Kem Nunn, Tapping the Source (1984) – One of the most beautifully written books on my list, I fell in love with Tapping the Source immediately. Nunn’s writing is pitch perfect, and his central character remarkable for just how unprepared he is for the quest he is about to undertake. It’s a cliche to say that characters need to develop over the arc of a story, but Ike Tucker really does – unrecognisable by the end from the young man who let his uncle speak for him at the book’s beginning. Nunn’s descriptions of the book’s surfing community are also steadily accurate and clearly drawn from life – the Darwinian struggle to catch the best waves one element of the violence that runs through the book like a red seam. Review here. […]

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