Friday, February 8, 2013

THE DOGS OF WINTER by Kem Nunn: Friday's Forgotten Book

My forgotten selection for this week is Kem Nunn's The Dogs of Winter, a beautifully written mystery/thriller, a surfer novel which has deep literary significance as well.  It had been many years since I'd first read it, and this time I relished the unfolding of the plot and the beautiful prose even more.  The characters are like old friends and have stayed with me all this time.

Nunn has a small but vocal following of readers, many of whom prefer his first novel, Tapping the Source.  I happen to think that both novels are masterpieces with only minor flaws.  I'll shore up this argument momentarily.

Over at J. Kingston Pierce's esteemed blog, link, journalist and author Denise Hamilton made her case for Tapping the Source, an argument she greatly enlarged upon in the last year's published anthology, Books To Die For.  Another good review is at the Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog at this link.

Briefly, the plot of Tapping the Source has a young everyman searching for his lost sister, Ellen.  She's an Hellenistic character rumored to have been abducted and possibly murdered by a trinity of furies, led by a hound of hell.  The protagonist at first is repelled by the thought of the exploitation of young women, the drugs and other addictions, but he himself becomes seduced and addicted to the hedonistic surfer life, thus turning into what he despises.  When you look into the abyss, it looks back at you.  Or as Pogo once said, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Three years ago this month, the Spinetingler Blog featured Tapping the Source as its Forgotten Book at this link.  All of the references to the movie, Point Blank, are interesting, but down the page you should read the comments by Brian Lindenmuth and Terrill Lee Lankford.  The latter says that Tapping the Source "...had come very close to being filmed with Ridley Scott directing and Sean Penn starring, but Penn and the producers had a last minute salary dispute and the project fell apart. It was currently in limbo. Scott jumped ship and went over to a project called Johnny Utah which was similar enough to Tapping the Source that lawsuits were threatened. Scott eventually dropped out of the project and Bigelow/Cameron came in and revised it again and POINT BREAK was born."
journalist and author Denise Hamilton

The Strangely Connected blog has a nice review with quotes from Tapping the Source here, and an interesting, if limited, review of The Dogs of Winter here.  The blogger, Hugh McPhail, has some problems with Kem Nunn's style, with some syntax that needed editing, but more especially with the last line of The Dogs of Winter:

But then, he had come to the belief that all things were so ordered, from the steps a man took in time, to the tracks of a storm, the likes of which came with the season, exchanging their energies with that of a frigid and turbulent sea, and thereby raising waves as if they were themselves some variation on God’s erring Wisdom and so able to labor their passion into matter.

Let me unpack that.  We're creatures of spirit having a physical experience.  Our spirits are not made of matter, though we act like they are.  We take form like waves on the ocean or whirlpools in the river, and are under the illusion that we are solid, separate egos, only to dissolve back into the stream again.

That, of course, is a very Cormac McCarthy type of statement, and in fact, the book rings with wonderfully Faulkner/McCarthy-like sentences, almost all of them more accessible than the one above.

When Kem Nunn was interviewed about The Dogs of Winter at this link, he was asked which writer had most been an influence, and he replied:  "As a writer you have to be in love with language.  I would have to say Cormac McCarthy.  His novel, Blood Meridian, is among my favorites.  You can trace the cadences of his prose all the way back to Faulkner."  Later he said it again in this interview with Denis Faye of the Writers Guild blog, link.

Yes, and it is not just the McCarthy-like prose we see in Kem Nunn's marvelous books.  The same gnostic/buddhist/christian/pantheist naturalistic spirituality is there as well, as Nunn himself has stated.  This same spirituality is also to be found in that other great literary surfing novel, Tim Winton's Breath, which I blogged about at this link.  Birds of a feather.

I love this quote from 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."

If you're looking for surfer novels with a lighter, more superficial touch, you might enjoy Tim Winslow's Dawn Patrol and its sequel, The Gentleman's Hour, which I reviewed at this link. 

(March 14th edit:  Steve Nester's review of Kem Nunn's Tapping The Source has just appeared over at the Rap Sheet:


  1. I just bought TIJAUNA STRAITS by Nunn. Hope it is good. Loved THE DAWN PATROL.

  2. I've read both Tapping the Source and The Dogs of Winter as well as Winslow's The Dawn Patrol and The Gentleman's Hour. I've had a trade paperback copy of Tijaune Straits for years plus a first that I later bought at Murder One on London's Charing Cross Road before that great store closed. I'll bet that I've picked one or other at least a half dozen times and haven't been able to get by the first 10 or so pages. Don't know why. I just finished Jeff Shelby's latest, Liquid Smoke, featuring San Diego surfing PI Noel Braddock. No surfing this time, but the best in the series. I'll have to find Tim Winton's Breath.

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  4. I liked this one. It reminded me of a hybrid of a pair of movies from the 90's: Point Break and Thunder Heart. The guy is a great prose stylist and I love the feel of his stories. they are dark, yet inviting and there is a disarming twinge of sentimentality to the books I've read by him.
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