Tapping the Source (1984)
Setting: Huntington Beach, CA (Surf City)
Category: surfer noir
In In Tapping the Source, the author portrays Huntington Beach, CA as a place of hopeless dreams. It’s the first in a loosely connected trilogy of “surfing noir” novels that includes other titles such as The Dogs of Winter (1997)and Tijuana Straits (2004). The story is about an eighteen year old kid leaving home from the great nowhere to go find his sister and gets more than he bargained for.
Ike’s sister Ellen Turner ran away two years ago and no one has heard from her. Ellen’s described as a wild kid who felt caged in. She’s runaway before but this time she left for good. A kid the same age as Ike comes to town and tells him that his sister went to Mexico with three guys and she didn’t return with them when they came back. He hands Ike a sheet of paper with three names on it. Sizing up Ike, he tells him to get some good help because these guys are not “lightweight” and they like to surf the pier.
Ike gets on a bus and heads to Surf City and finds himself lost in a world unknown to him. It’s a world of money, drugs, sex, violence that’s inhabited by bikers, runaway teens and coked-out surfers. Ike has been nowhere outside of the California desert. His parents deserted him with his grandmother and uncle and his sister couldn’t wait to get out to the coast. Ike is our guide into this tempestuous world and his transformation is believable. The novel is about 85% surfing and the other 15% is trying to figure out what happened with his sister. The author did a great job of inserting bits and pieces of revelations throughout the narrative to keep you turning the pages.
The story is very atmospheric and very dark in tone. The author inundates you with the descriptions of the sights, the sounds and smells of the beach, the hotels and shops along main street. The title of this novel is metaphorical. Tapping the Source is a logo for a surfer shop – but it has many different meanings. The story is told in third person narrative but only from Ike’s POV and we watch as Ike gets pulled deeper and deeper into this seedy and dangerous world. The women in here are mostly runaways looking for dope and getting caught up in the drug scene. Some have dreams of a better life. Some disappear. The language of this world was as realistic as the author could make it.
Tapping the Source is an engrossing read. I’m giving this book an A because the story was captivating to me but it was also emotionally draining. I’m not a fan of surfing but after reading this story, albeit several years post-publication, I feel somewhat enlightened of how this world was once back then. It’s a combination of highs and lows. The character arcs were thoroughly engaging. The story has a strong feel of nostalgia about how things used to be. There’s an emphasis on karma, of choosing your own path and not letting others decide for you. There’s also the strong imagery of man being connected and becoming one with nature or tapping the source.
Everything coming together until it was all one thing: the birds, the porpoise, the leaves of seaweed and catching sunlight through the water, all one thing and he was one with it. Locked in. Not just tapping the source but of the source. It must have been what they felt before him, what two young men had felt and given a name to. And he thought of what it must have been like then, beaches like this one scattered up and down the coast like jewels at the edge of the sea. It must have seemed too good to be true, and it must have seemed that it would be that way forever, and yet now it was the wreckage of that dream that lay between them.
I was intrigued by the gods of this world and how it all fell apart – in this case the surfers who were viewed as heroes in a world that’s now gone. As the author succinctly puts it, “the hunger and vitality of this world is now replaced by desperateness and coked out fatigue.” Ike taps into this moment but then he knows when to break away unlike some others who continue to search for it and become lost to the sea forever. Excellent novel.
Notes: Tapping the Source was nominated for The National Book Award. It’s said that the book inspired the film, Point Break.
Source: I bought this book