Tim Winton, Breath (2008; page number references below are from 2009 Pickford paperback edition).
This novel is a coming of age story in which life lessons are learned that have a profound and lasting impact on the main character. But what exactly were those life lessons? I thought I knew where this story was going until about two-thirds of the way through. Then I was emotionally whip-lashed as the plot veered off in a (for me) totally unexpected boomerang trajectory.
The first chapter introduces us to the narrator, Bruce, an emergency medical technician about 50 years old working in Australia who is responding to an apparent suicide. The remainder of book relates events that happened to him as a child while growing up. At the end of the book the adult narrator sums up some of the important life lessons learned from his growing up experiences. At that point we have a better understanding of some of Bruce’s actions and reactions to the apparent suicide in the opening chapter.
In the early chapters eleven year old Bruce, nicknamed Pikelet, makes a friend with Ivan Loon, nicknamed Loonie. One day they set out, without parents’ permission, to the ocean. They encounter a group of surfers and, watching them, the narrator informs us that “what caught his imagination that day was beauty” (page 25), and that thinking back about those events,
“Even now, nearly forty years later, some spark of early promise returns to me like a moment of grace.” (page 26).
This observation led me to believe this book was going to explore a coming of age story in which Pikelet found meaning in a life that revolved around surfing.
This initial expectation is reinforced by other passages about the narrator’s emotional response to surfing, such as,
“And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.” (page 35).
At the surfing beach Pikelet and Loonie meet an “old guy” (we learn later he is in his thirties 🙂 ) nicknamed Sando who showed up only on the days when the surf was exceptionally big. He is an enigmatic character, an aging hippy type, with “an insouciance and princely manner, spine arched and head thrown back.” (page 29). Soon the three of them begin meeting for “appointments with the undisclosed”, private surfing excursions to dangerous places where the ordinary surfers never go.
“So there we were, this unlikely trio. A select and peculiar circle of friends, a cult, no less.” (page 102)
At this point I am still thinking I know where this story is going. Sando is going to be a wise mentor and guru who uses surfing to guide the two young boys into a transition from childhood to manhood, perhaps revealing some secrets about the meaning of life along the way.
But there is foreshadowing all along that this might not be an idyllic journey. When Pikelet and Loonie first meet they recognize a kinship from the fact that they both enjoy scaring observers on the beach by simulating drowning.
“We scared people, pushing each other harder and further until often as not we scared ourselves.” (page 16)
Sando’s invitations to accompany him on potentially dangerous surfing outings played into both of their proclivites for engaging in risky behavior. For Pikelet,
“I felt something special had been afforded me — I did stuff other people didn’t do.” (page 149)
But Loonie was much more extreme with regard to thriving on risk taking behavior. He “liked anything with an edge on it, loved a dare.” (page 33) And the risks Sando was encouraging both boys to engage in were clearly innapropriate. At one point Sando’s wife, Eva, provokes a fight. Reflecting back on this, the narrator speculates,
“Later I wondered if she had done it to make him [Sando] see what was developing between him and two boys less than half his age, to give him pause.” (page 70)
Even as Looney seemingly thrives in this environment, Pikelet starts experiencing a “creeping sense I’d begun something I didn’t know how to finish.” (page 118) At times fright about what might happen on an upcoming surfing excursion became almost overwhelming for Pikelet, creating “a sick feeling.” (page 117) As a result of this difference in temperaments, Looney and Sando appear to be developing an ever closer bond, but Pikelet feels increasingly left out.
When Sando takes Loonie on a surfing trip to Indonesia, leaving Pikelet behind, not even telling him that they are leaving, the three way relationship starts to seriously rupture — “Things were different.” (page 140) In Sando and Loonies absence, Pikelet starts going out to Sando’s beach house and spending time with Eva, Sando’s troubled wife.
Soon Pikelet finds himself sucked into a sexual relationship that quickly takes an even more dangerous turn. Eva’s sexual drive is powered by an autoerotic asphyxia fetish.
“Listen, she said as though offering me a lifeline. I have a game we can play.” … “You hang yourself?” “Sure. Sometimes.” “Fuck. Why?” “Because I like it.” (pages 182 and 183)
As would be expected for a young adolescent male, Pikelet initially finds this forbidden erotic activity to be exciting and stimulating, but it soon degenerates into something that feels mostly pathetic, and ultimately, disgusting.
These experiences serve as a lifting of a veil, allowing Pikelet to suddenly also see Sando in a new, unhealthy light. While walking on the beach one day, Pikelet sees Sando surfing while wearing a speedo bathing suit that would only be appropriate for a much younger man, and thinks he looks “creepy”. The rest of his life, Pikelet is haunted by a similar fear about himself.
I was careful, always backing off. And somehow, somewhere along the track, I went numb. … I followed the outline of my life, and carefully rehearsing form without conviction, like a bishop who can’t see his faith has become an act.” (pages 206 and 207)
Years later, Bruce (Pikelet) sees a magazine article pitched as a success story with a photo of Bill Sanderson (Sando) supposedly presiding over an empire based on snowboards and alpine apparel. Bruce is cynical of the hype, adding his own characterization “– All dripping rebel chic.” (page 207) Later he learns that Eva commited suicide. Loonie died in Mexico, shot in a bar, something involving a drug deal having gone bad. And Bruce himself suffers lifelong consequences from these childhood experiences including a failed marriage and depression so severe that at one point he was forced to check himself into a hospital.
But Bruce, though wounded, did survive, and comes out of these experiences with some positives. He ended up with
“two daughters, so beautiful I could never stop being anxious for them. And now they’re women, old enough to find me more an amusement than a puzzle.” (page 205)
And Bruce finds satisfaction in going surfing sometimes, but now sticks with the ordinary surfers, not the extreme risk takers.
If this novel is considered as a fable, then its moral lesson could probably be encapsulated in the aphorism, Moderation in all things. But the lesson is presented here with a harder edge. Sitting in a airport lounge watching a television commentator blather about an extreme Olympic sporting event, the adult Bruce expresses his own reaction,
“Apparently there is nothing to fear in life but fear itself. This is the sort of shit you hear in the pub … Along with chat about celebrities and weight loss and the award rate.” (page 215)
The metaphor of breath and breathing is used effectively throughout this novel. At one end of the spectrum, breathing is boring, a monotonous breathe-in, breathe-out, usually performed without conscious awareness. The youngster Pikelet identified this form of breathing with his old fashioned, boring parents, “Long before I even turned in I’d hear [father] begin to snore” (page 43)
At the other end of the spectrum, conscious control of breathing in the form of an act of deliberately withholding an opportunity to breathe can be the opposite of boring. In the most extreme case it will lead to death. Thrill seekers such as extreme surfers can try to get a rush by pushing as close to death as possible without succumbing. Part of the growing up process for Pikelet and Loonie was to figure out where to place themselves within this spectrum as they transitioned from childhood to being adults. The adult Bruce muses,
… 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 the years of my adolescence were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.” (page 43)
The influences of Loonie, Sando, and Eva during Pikelet’s formative years pushed him towards the extreme end of the spectrum for a time. But his experiences with Eva’s sexual fetish finally served as a wake-up call that pulled him back, not soon enough to prevent him from being seriously wounded psychologically, but soon enough to allow him to survive and tell us his story.