Tijuana Straights, by Kem Nunn

Kem Nunn is a genre unto himself. Starting with Tapping the Source and leading up to “The Dogs of Winter”, perhaps his best work, Nunn has blazed a trail with “surfer noir” – down on their luck old surfers, looking for that one last wave to bring them to redemption. Tijuana Straights is his most recent novel. Fahey is the aging surfer, living in Tijuana River Valley near the Mexican border, remembering the time he rode the Mystic Peak wave before he went wrong. Nunn rages about the destruction (environmental and psychological) wrought by the factories constructed along the border on the mexican side, and their impact on Mexicans and Americans alike. Magdalena is the woman who is trying to make a difference. She and Fahey are thrown together and….

Nunn is strong prose stylist, melding biblical cadence with modern sensibilities. Consider this Faulkner-esque masterpiece:

And just for that instant, sea water seeping into his socks, gun held loosely in the crook of an arm, was thoroughly transported…and beheld the boy, not yet sixteen, hunkered at the foot of these selfsame dunes, and the old Dakota Badlander right there beside him, surfboards like graven images of wood and fiberglass set before them, tail blocks sunk into the very sand upon which Fahey now stood, and the boy watching, as the old man waves toward the sea with a stick held at the end of one long arm corded with muscle, burnt by the sun, then uses the stick to trace in the sand the route they will follow and the lineups they will use to find their way among the shifting peaks that stretch into the ocean for as far as the eye can see, wave crests capped by tongues of flame as the mist of feathering lips flies before the light of an approaching sunrise…and this when the light was still pure, before the smog, before the fence at the heart of the valley, before the shit had hit the fan.

Magdalena and Fahey adventure together, and (trust me this is not a spoiler), have what passes for happy endings in Nunn novels. Tijuana Straights has many similarities to The Dogs of Winter – I found the Dogs of Winter to be slightly stronger – but Tijuana Straights is well worth the “2 in the morning” finish it will undoubtedly provoke.

[Update: This post was begging for a soundtrack. Here it is. The Aqua Velvets, Calexico, Chris Whitley, Joe Strummer – these guys were made for Kem Nunn.]

Surf Noir Kings Ride Again – The Aqua Velvets
Crooked Road and The Briar – Calexico
Quattro (World Drifts In) – Calexico
They Drive By Night – The Aqua Velvets
The Ride (Part II) – Calexico
Johnny Appleseed – Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros
Black Heart – Calexico
Ball Peen Hammer – Chris Whitley
Living With the Law – Chris Whitley
Crystal Frontier – Calexico
Dirt Floor – Calexico

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6 thoughts on “Tijuana Straights, by Kem Nunn”

  1. Nice review, Mark. I always presumed that anyone writing about surfing in fiction would choose a more Hemingwegian model. Naive, I know. I also know how busy you are with a few other things but I always appreciate your book reviews. Thanks.

  2. stay tuned – working on a soundtrack for the review 8) – have a few tracks running through my head that go with the book…

  3. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re homesick for the southwest and have been reading a lot of Sam Shepard. All of which makes me more curious about Tijuana Straights. I particularly like They Drive By Night and Black Heart, btw. Good fun.

  4. There is a character in the book called Nacho and “Black Heart” sounds like it was written for him….

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