Tim Winton, the prolific Australian author of Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, and The Riders, among nine novels, three short-story collections, six children’s books, and three nonfiction books, has a genius for the ungainly comedy of family life and the isolated sadness of lovers. But he is also a writer who values themes, a practitioner of what might be called the school of Macho Romanticism, or perhaps better, Heroic Sensitivity. His novels, often set on the sea in Western Australia, are grand, gothically lyrical affairs, beautifully written and spiritually overwrought. They can partake of giddy magical realism, like Cloudstreet, the immensely popular 1992 novel of two families haunted by ghosts, angels, and a talking pig; or like Dirt Music they can partake of the solemn wilderness epic, placing a guilt-ridden musician on a remote island to hallucinate as he plucks on a single, droning nylon string. Winton’s characters tend to flirt with death, long for death, while at the same time bravely suffering physical hardship in order to escape death.
The new novel is also charged with physical danger, physical courage, and Winton’s brand of rugged introspection. But it is far less extravagant in style and scope than some of his earlier work. Interestingly, for a book about risk, this novel is meticulously, intensely careful in its composition. Breath is distilled Winton.
Bruce Pike, “a lone child and solitary by nature,” growing up in the 1970s, is eleven years old. His family life is muted, mired, the antithesis of risk:
Somewhere along the way I became aware that my parents were old people with codgers’ interests. They pottered about with their vegetables and poultry. They smoked their own fish and mended and embroidered. Of an evening they listened to the radio, or the wireless, as they called it.
Even the town he lives in, a small mill town in Western Australia called Sawyer, is “drab and fixed.” It is only when he meets Ivan Loon, the publican’s unruly, motherless son, that the boy starts to come alive. Loonie and Pikelet, as they call each other, meet at the river, and though it is slow and brown with tannin, in this unlikely body of water they first discover a mutual pleasure in danger that becomes the beginning of an intense friendship. Together, friends and rivals, the boys dive to the dark riverbed, hanging on to slimy roots, testing themselves, holding their breaths until their heads “were full of stars…. We scared people, pushing each other harder and harder until often as not we scared ourselves.”
Pikelet is the calm, thoughtful fifty-year-old narrator of his own careless, frenetic youth. He shows us a boy who grapples with the meaning of his world and his place in it, who discovers himself amid both the roar and rubble and the interminable hush of the world around him; in its shape and its preoccupations, Breath is a classic coming-of-age novel, and it’s a good one, too. But here the story of a boy growing up becomes something more elemental. Pikelet confronts the boundaries of not just his own life, but of life itself. The novel is also, deliriously, a yarn of surfing.
The town of Sawyer is close to the sea, but most of the residents don’t like the ocean, fearing it as something wild. Some, like Pikelet’s father, don’t even know how to swim. When the two reckless little boys ride their bikes to the shore and see, for the first time, surfers out on the waves, they are stunned. “How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.” This pointless manly beauty—“the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do”—seems radical to Pikelet.
Pikelet, who narrates the novel from an older, sadder place, is a soul desperate to escape the smallness, the stifling sameness of his world. He describes Loonie as having “a manic energy…, some strange hotwired spirit.” Pikelet, though, is less sure of himself, less bold. His acts of daring frequently result not from courage but from terror, a sense of do or die, of having no real choice. When he and Loonie eventually save up enough money through odd jobs to buy obsolete secondhand surfboards (castoffs of “somebody’s sister’s boyfriend”), and bicycle to the beach to paddle out beyond the waves for their maiden voyage, Loonie is the first to launch himself into the surf. Pikelet is left bobbing in lonely panic, unwilling to surf in until he realizes it is the only way home. When he does get up on his surfboard for the first time, the boy’s entire world expands. In the senseless physical peril and sheer physical joy of surfing, in the massive beauty of the waves, Pikelet discovers something his circumscribed life has never even suggested: grandeur.
After a few weeks of passionate surfing, the boys meet the man who will become their surfing guru. He has a mythical, heroic, almost god-like presence:
There was a casual authority in the way he surfed, a grace that made all our moves look jerky and hesitant. He was a big, strong man. The tight wetsuit showed every contour of his body, the width of his shoulders, the meat in his thighs. Water shone in his beard. His eyes were steely in the glare. In the long lulls we bobbed either side of him, our feet pedalling idly. We were bashful in his presence.
Sando is thirty-six and lives in a house nearby with Eva, his surly American wife. The boys begin to visit them whenever possible, after school, on weekends, and on holidays. He takes Pikelet and Loonie under his wing, teaching them, occasionally indulging himself in pompous mystical lectures. Eventually he brings them to a secret spot, a beach he calls Barney’s where the wave “wasn’t huge but it was long and perfect: blue, pure, and empty.” But Barney’s beach, with all its purity, is named after a fourteen-foot great white shark that patrols it. With Pikelet’s introduction to this beautiful but ominous place, a pattern begins to emerge in Sando’s pedagogical friendship. First, Sando taunts the boys, daring them to follow him into the water; an enraged Loonie rushes in; Pikelet, “hapless and terrified… dry-mouthed and shaky” lingers, then trails in hesitantly after them. The pay-off is undreamed-of exhilaration. Not even the sight of Barney himself can diminish the joy of the two boys. If anything, it adds to the soaring thrill:
That eye, said Loonie, was like a fuckin hole in the universe.
It was as close as he got to poetry.
Winton’s descriptions of water—riding over it or through it, diving deep within it, conquering it or submitting to its overpowering force—are majestic. Much of the drama of Breath, and there is considerable drama, comes from the boys’ growing intimacy with the sea. A number of triangle relationships develop in Breath: Pikelet, Loonie, and Sando; Pikelet, Sando, and Eva; but also, and perhaps most important of all, Pikelet, Sando, and the water itself. It is not just convention when Winton names the waves: they are living, roaring, chest-beating characters in this novel. Winton’s waves are active, alive, “seething vapor” and “spritzing froth.” They rumble, they boil, they flick, and they poleaxe. After Barney’s, the boys graduate to Old Smokey, another of Sando’s secrets, an enormous, supposedly unsurfable wave, a distant line of white water that breaks a mile offshore. Even getting to Old Smokey requires a trial, a leap from a rocky cliff;
I looked down into the maw and waited for the surge to return…. Birds shrieked behind me. The rocks streamed with fizz. Every crack spilled rivulets and streams and sheets until suddenly the sea came back and Sando started yelling and then I braced and jumped.
The offshore wave, too, feels hellish, with its thunderous noise and vibration, tearing at Pikelet’s dangling legs as he waits, terrified: “Mountains of water rose from the south; they rumbled by, gnawing at themselves….” Then, as before, Pikelet is simply too afraid to stay where he is, and when he finally begins to surf, the language turns heavenward: “The angelic relief of gliding out onto the shoulder of the wave in a mist of spray and adrenaline. Surviving is the strongest memory I have; the sense of having walked on water.”
The three feel isolated from the ordinary world in their mutual understanding of this god-like experience. For Pikelet,
Everything around me seemed so pointless and puny. The locals in the street looked cowed and weak and ordinary. Wherever I went I felt like the last person awake in a room of sleepers.
The world he grew up in recedes. The new world of Loonie and Sando, of an extraordinary fraternity, becomes more and more real. The boys spend all their time with the older man. They discover that he was once a world-famous surfer. The word Pikelet uses for Sando is “princely.” He has a grand hippy manner, and the adulation of the two boys flatters and fuels him: “We were, he said in a slightly thespian manner, gentlemen in search of a discreet location, and we understood, without his having to say a word, that we were also now a secret society of three.” After first surfing Barney’s, Pikelet notes that they had imagined themselves
into a different life, another society, a state for which no raw boy has either words or experience to describe. Our minds had already gone out to meet it and we’d left the ordinary in our wake.
After surfing Old Smokey, they have become “a select and peculiar club, a tiny circle of friends, a cult, no less. Sando and his maniacal apprentices.”
The lure of “walking on water” becomes a need and ultimately a kind of addiction. The members of the trio do not consider what they do extreme. This is before the age of “extreme sports,” Pikelet notes, and the word strikes them as “unworthy” of the sublime risks they take. “What we did and what we were after, we told ourselves, was the extraordinary.”
The dichotomy of ordinary and extraordinary is at the core of Winton’s Romantic conception. The ordinary is narrow and drab, the extraordinary wide and dynamic and bright, clear blue. But somewhere, Winton suggests, Sando’s cult of the extraordinary loses sight of what makes us human in the first place. The extraordinary, which started out for Pikelet as a dance of newfound beauty, is revealed finally as being all about denial: the denial first of the law of gravity; then denial of the simplest, most basic, unconscious, essential, and first action we take as living beings in the world, breathing, and, inevitably, denial of the preciousness of life. This, ultimately, is Pikelet’s coming-of-age journey, the slow, painful realization that a superman is not really a man at all. In later years someone calls Pikelet an addictive personality. “When I was born,” he responds, “I took a breath and wanted more…. That’s called being human.” In that need, the need to take another breath, the most ordinary act of all, Winton locates not just our first, but our most essential human act. At the same time, for Pikelet the very necessity of breathing, the relentless, rhythmic sameness of it, becomes confused with the inescapable sameness of life in the grim, unchanging town of Sawyer. When Pikelet lies in bed at night, he listens to his father’s snoring and it becomes a terrifying symphony of dread:
The noise wasn’t the worst of it. It was the pauses that really got to me. When he fell silent, I’d lie there waiting, forced to listen to my own breathing, which was so steady and involuntary. More than once since then I’ve wondered whether the life-threatening high jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to in those years of my adolescence were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath…. As a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your own body as exercising it on others.
Tampering with the ordinary, with that need to draw breath, becomes the center of the novel. Fortunately it is not all that Winton makes happen. Even in his most lavish style, Winton saves himself from the merely decorative or indulgent. He writes with steady conviction, as if words in a book mattered, as if they were physical, dignified beings. The domestic details in Winton’s work are afforded the same dignity as the mystical forays, and the most ordinary moments are often the strongest. In Pikelet’s quest for the extraordinary, Winton does not forget the smells of the school bus, the posture of the girls in Pikelet’s high school, “the way they sheltered their breasts with their shoulders,” or the resignation of his baffled parents.
Breath is an exploration of ambition and complacency, but it is also a nuanced story of an adolescent turning his affections away from his parents to a more glamorous couple, as adolescents so often do. It is the story of an intense boyhood friendship that is bleached and shredded by rivalry the way a favorite shirt is destroyed in the sun. And it is the story of a fifteen-year-old boy falling in love with a beautiful, damaged older woman.
When Sando sets his sights on the Nautilus, a wave that breaks on a reef miles from shore, Pikelet finally, unwillingly drops out of the fraternity of extraordinary gentlemen. “What would success there really mean?” he asks himself, “—perhaps three or four or even five seconds of upright travel on a wave as ugly as a civic monument?” He knows that “any reasonable person” would also refuse to “ride…that deformity,” yet that realization brings him no solace. On the contrary, he is inconsolable, for he realizes that “I was, after all, ordinary.” Sando and Loonie are now members of an even more exclusive club, and they take off to Indonesia on a surfing trip, the first of many without Pikelet. He is left alone with Sando’s wife, Eva, ill-tempered, bitter, twenty-five years old.
Eva, who was once a competitive ski jumper, has a badly damaged and painful knee. She is deprived of the one thing that makes her life real: “being airborne, up longer, higher, more casually and with more fuckoff elegance than anyone else in the world. I never understood the rules or science of it,” Pikelet muses, “but I recognized the singlemindedness it took to match risk with nerve come what may. Such endeavors require a kind of egotism, a near-autistic narrowness.” Pikelet falls in love with her in the same way he fell for surfing, and his descriptions of her have the same cadences as his descriptions of magnificent waves:
She was taller than me, heavier, stronger. Her bad knee was hotter to the touch than the uninjured one. Her tongue often tasted of cornflakes and the brassiness of painkillers. When she wound her hair into a braid it was a shining hawser, heavy yet supple in my hands.
There is danger in this new kind of wave, too. Eva, unable to do her own kind of walking on water, has found another way to tempt and cheat death. She practices erotic asphyxiation, placing a pink plastic bag over her face. She convinces Pikelet to play this sordid sex game with her, and he hates it:
I was as dim and horny as any other schoolboy, a sucker for excitement, and I’d been scaring the shit out of myself since primary school, but each time I let go of Eva’s throat and ripped the slimy bag off her face I didn’t see rapture. What I saw was death ringing her like a bell.
Death suddenly sidles into Pikelet’s youthful world, but not in any of the ways he expected, and had every right to expect. Pikelet, Loonie, and Sando all survive the monster waves and Eva survives her monstrous flirtation with death. When death comes, it comes for Pikelet’s careful, prudent father, an accident at the sawmill as he performed his everyday tasks, an ordinary man at work. The son who liked to stand tilting at the edge of life is thoroughly chastened:
Death was everywhere—waiting, welling, undiminished. It would always be coming for me and mine and I told myself I could no longer afford the thrill of courting it.
The ordinary, which Pikelet has so desperately tried to escape, is what, in later years, he most wants to rediscover. “I withdrew into watchful rectitude,” he says, “anxious to please, risking nothing.” The novel is told from the other side of that struggle for normality, looking back at youth over a mountain of difficulties that the narrator only suggests in the barest outline. We hear that he has married and had two daughters, that he did something to mess it up. We discover, in an aside, that he checked himself into some sort of mental health facility. But Winton always maintains a great, awkward distance between the adult Pikelet telling the story and the boy Pikelet he recalls. The lapses in Pikelet’s adult story give the novel an oddly urgent authenticity, as if the narrator cannot delay the rush of memory to make room for the merely chronological.
Without much explanation, Winton presents Pikelet as a man whose whole life has been warped by his sordid experience with Eva. (It is not entirely convincing, but it doesn’t really matter. Pikelet’s truth as a narrator is in his observation, not his judgment.) For a while, Pikelet tells us, he raged against Eva. “In the spirit of the times I held her morally accountable for all my grown-up troubles.” But the Pikelet who tells this tale is past rage. The choice between ordinary and extraordinary is no longer clear to him. He is a broken man in some ways, living in the house he grew up in, seeing his daughters occasionally, living a small life with his excitement channeled into an EMS job. As a boy, he did everything he could to challenge the dailiness of breathing. As a man, he does everything he can to preserve it.
Winton’s work has an underlying ambivalence about living large or merely living. The anxious uncertainty is resolved in Cloudstreet with an embrace of humor and family. In Dirt Music, too, an epic attraction toward death is resolved in an exhausted acceptance of life and love. Winton likes heroics, but his heroes are always brought sternly down to earth. They are launched into the glorious sun, then yanked unceremoniously back. With Pikelet, though, Winton allows Daedalus, scorched as he is, to continue to fly, albeit on water. “I slide down the long green walls into the bay to feel what I lost so quickly and for so long” says the fifty-year-old Pikelet: “the sweet momentum, the turning force underfoot, and those brief, rare moments of grace. I’m dancing….” Breath is not a triumphant book; it is a sad and thoughtful one.