Author Kem Nunn’s California is a land of broken dreams, where visions of peaceful beach communities are swallowed by the realities of addiction, violence, and mistakes that can’t be undone. Nunn grew up in California, and his depiction of it cuts through the flowery haze, capturing the grime and depravity of the Golden State in a way that only a native child could.
Before Point Break, there was Tapping The Source, Nunn’s 1984 debut novel, which inspired the 1991 movie and its 2015 remake. But aside from Hound Adams as a template for Bodhi—the idealistic surfer-turned-criminal-mastermind, played by Patrick Swayze in the original and Édgar Ramírez in the remake—and a few other general similarities, Point Break and Tapping The Source are two very different beasts. Ike Tucker, the central character of the novel, is a white trash kid from San Arco, a tiny town tucked away in California’s desert wasteland. Abandoned by their mother when they were kids, Ike and his sister, Ellen, interact more with mirages than other teens—until Ellen starts sneaking out at night to drift among the townie parties of nearby King City. Ike and Ellen have each other, but, like so many relationships between Nunn’s characters, it gets poisoned. Isolation and hormones eventually push them to a place where desire overwhelms shame. And then the moment passes. Instead of seeing regret in the form of Ike everyday, Ellen decides to ditch San Arco for Huntington Beach.
After three years without Ike hearing from her, a kid emerges from the world outside the desert in a white Camaro, bringing word of Ellen falling in with a crew of shady surfers and never coming back from a trip to Mexico. Armed only with a list of three names—Hound Adams, Terry Jacobs, and Frank Baker—Ike decides to move to Huntington Beach to help his sister, or at least find out what happened to her. What he discovers is a town that, despite its sunny façade, is hostile to outsiders and operates according to the rhythm of its inhabitants’ cravings, which range from gnarly waves and weed to cocaine and violent porn.
Tapping The Source moves with the rapid gait of a Dashiell Hammett novel, purposefully using misleading foreshadowing to make each turn feel unexpected. Like many writers’ first books, the novel is a Rosetta Stone for Nunn’s body of work. The antiheroes who vacillate between evoking sympathy and scorn; the collision between dreams and reality; the mistakes that people can never escape; and, of course, surfing: It’s all there.
After two more novels, Unassigned Territory (1986) and Pomona Queen (1992), Nunn published The Dogs Of Winter, his masterwork, in 1997. Similar to Tapping The Source, the novel finds energy in deft action sequences and fully realized characters that are always guided by motives that simmer beneath the surface. The Dogs Of Winter has a wider narrative scope than Nunn’s first book, shifting between on-the-shoulder perspectives of four characters: Jack Fletcher, a washed-up, painkiller-addicted surfing photographer; Drew Harmon, a legendary pro surfer who has long disappeared from the surfing world to live among the redwoods and elusive swells of Northern California; Travis, a half-white half-Hupa man who works for the Northern California Indian Development Council; and Kendra Harmon, Drew’s wife who knows that her husband harbors a horrific secret but isn’t sure what to do about it. Perspective shifts can sometimes feel like stilted attempts to heighten drama, but Nunn switches between these characters while smoothly advancing the overall plot.
In many ways, The Dogs Of Winter is Moby Dick reshaped into surf noir. From the first time Drew Harmon appears, he bears unmistakable similarity to Captain Ahab. Harmon’s reputation with Fletcher and the other surfers of the novel gives him an otherworldly aura, which is complicated by the fact that many of the rumors about him—such as his discovery of a fabled though yet-to-be-ridden swell called Heart Attacks—often prove to be true. After years of living off the radar of the surfing world, Harmon seeks out Fletcher to photograph him riding Heart Attacks. The highly coveted photos could help Fletcher emerge from his years-long rut of inaction and self-hate, so he travels north with two rising surf pros. Harmon then spearheads a manic journey that routinely jeopardizes other people’s lives in pursuit of his own greatness. The Dogs Of Winter is also part nature writing. The novel features amazing surfing scenes, but Nunn’s descriptions of the ocean and the indifferent monoliths that rise from its surface create the visceral sensation of getting caught in a riptide.
2004’s Tijuana Straits finds Nunn returning to Southern California. The novel takes place in the Tijuana River Valley, a swath of land nestled between Imperial Beach and Tijuana where people go to die. Like the desert of San Arco for Ike Turner, the Valley is an ominous presence for Sam “The Gull” Fahey, injected as it is with his acidic past. Once a golden child with seemingly infinite promise as a surfer, Fahey now lives on his dead father’s worm farm, earning extra cash by killing stray dogs. Spending virtually all of his time alone, Fahey has developed a life philosophy that he calls “the irony of human action”—almost everything we do turns out opposite from our intentions, and often in the most grotesque ways.
This extreme cynicism also courses through Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt) in John From Cincinnati, a one-season HBO series that Nunn and Deadwood producer David Milch co-created in 2007. (Nunn wrote a Deadwood episode, and has since written for Sons Of Anarchy.)
At the height of his career, Yost was one of the most revered surfers in the world. Then he discovered that he could attain a bliss similar to carving massive waves by shooting heroin into his veins. John From Cincinnati shows Nunn delving into more fantastical territory: one character experiences levitations and another, John (Austin Nichols), is likely from another dimension. Throughout its only season, the series uses Shakespearian monologues and oracles, ultimately creating a mishmash of classical tropes, gritty realism, and Lynchian absurdity.
Nunn focuses on people who have fucked up so badly that redemption no longer applies. Even when things get better for his characters, their past mistakes never stop weighing upon them. But, despite the guilt and self-hatred that have forever latched onto Ike Turner, Drew Harmon, Sam Fahey, Butchie Yost, and many of Nunn’s other characters, they can still find momentary solace in surfing: that act of communing with the ocean that enables humans to fully inhabit singular moments.