Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dark Wave; a guest blog by Elizabeth Hand

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I swear this is not a theme this week, but Elizabeth Hand is another New-York-born-and-bred writer who came to Maine after spending several years in Washington, DC. As is common here in Maine, our paths have criss-crossed; at USM's Stonecoast program, at the Maine Writers and Publisher's sign-a-thons, at bookstores and fundraisers.

Liz is well known as a dark fantasist, a literary writer who combines historical settings and contemporary characters with beautiful, menacing supernatural elements. She's won just about every honor in her field, including the Tiptree, the Nebula and the World Fantasy awards, and her novels have been included in both the New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book lists.

In 2007, she turned her hand to crime fiction with the stunning Generation Loss. Part punk memoir, part thriller, all noir, it introduced her alcoholic, drug-dependent anti-hero Cass Neary. Now Cass in back in Available Dark, described by author Robert Crais as:

...a skin-blistering crime novel, as edgy and black as dried blood on a moonlit night. The frigid Scandinavian setting is a perfect backdrop for the horrific overlap of heavy metal and black arts, sorcerers and curses, and one woman's search for a long lost lover.

Today, Liz is going to tell us about the novel that taught her to love noir fiction.

Noir movies were part of the backdrop of my childhood, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca and The Big Sleep playing in glorious black-and-white on the small screen TV in our basement rec room. In high school, my boyfriend Steve knew a lot more about them than I did, introducing me to Nightmare Alley, Key Largo, Tod Browning's Freaks, Charles Laughton's sublimely strange Night of the Hunter. Noir iconography was ubiquitous in the 1970s: staring down from dorm room posters of Bogie and Bacall and Peter Lorre; parodied by Firesign Theater in its “Nick Danger” segments; paid tribute in films like Roman Polanski's Chinatown and Robert Altman's postmodernist riff on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

I loved all of these. Yet I often felt a curious disconnect from classic noir fiction -- what seemed elegant or elegantly camp onscreen too often seemed flat and brittle on the page. Years later I'd read or reread Hammett, Chandler, Highsmith with pleasure and admiration, but as a young adult I found their fiction musty and too far removed from the burned-out wreck of a world that I lived in. I wanted the exhilarated buzz and sense of recognition I got from Jean luc Godard's 1961 Breathless. That film's nihilist, amoral protagonists may not have been role models, but their lack of affect and remorse (not to mention their fashion sense) seemed as modern in 1975 as it does today. I wanted to read an American novel that would make me feel the way that movie did.

Tapping the Source, Kem Nunn's first novel did that, in spades.

First published in 1984, Tapping the Source invented its own modern subgenre, surf noir, while subverting and reinvigorating the tropes of classic American fiction: a male outsider (the novel's female characters are beautifully drawn but play supporting roles) whose engagement with overpoweringly violent natural forces serves as metaphor for his pursuit of the truth into an ever-deepening chasm of human evil. Ike Turner is a few weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday when a boy his own age drives a Camaro into the desolate California desert town where Ike lives with his uncle and fundamentalist grandmother. Two years earlier, Ike's seventeen-year-old sister Ellen ran away from home and hasn't been heard of since. With the exception of Ike, "Good riddance to bad rubbish" is the general opinion as to her disappearance (in one brilliant, heart-stopping flashback, the two siblings come close to incest). It wasn't the first time Ellen ran away. No one has expected her to return.

"Your sister was in Huntington Beach," the kid said at last, as if he'd made up his mind about something. "Last summer she went to Mexico. She went down there with some guys from Huntington. The guys came back. Your sister didn't. I tried to find out what happened." He paused, looking at Ike. "I couldn't. What I'm saying is the guys your sister went with are not the type of people you want to fuck around with. I was beginning to pick up some bad vibes."

That scene appears on page three. The vibes do not get better.

Before riding off in his Camaro, the stranger gives Ike a scrap a paper with three names on it -- Hound Adams, Terry Jacobs, Frank Baker -- and a terse bit of information. "They surf the pier, in the morning." Ike retrieves the stash he's saved from repairing Harley motorcycles, seven hundred bucks; grabs a six-pack, and goes to wait for the westbound Greyhound. By the next morning he's in Huntington Beach.

The HB Ike finds isn't today's gentrified condoland but "the last undeveloped beach town, full of surf shops, head shops and biker bars," as Nunn described it in a 1997 interview. It's the SoCal teenage wasteland of Darby Crash and bands like the Germs, X, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks; of Dogtown's Z-Boys, snuff films, and a surf culture that hadn't yet metastasized into corporate-sponsored logodom. It's a scary place, syringe-strewn streets and pier and waves lit with a bleak beauty that sears Ike even as it seduces him into thinking he can master it: Surf City as pre-millennial punk Sodom.

What if he could surf?

He thought about it all that morning, watching the small peaks take shape and break, and the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea, until at last he admitted to himself that there was more to it than just getting closer to the action. There was something in the shape and movement of the waves, something in the polished green faces laced with silver while the moon hung still visible above the town. A person could lose himself there, he guessed, and imagined cool green caverns carved from the hollow of some liquid barrel.

Ike seeks out the three surfers whose names were scrawled on that slip of paper, and over the months becomes their apprentice, confidante, friend. What he finds beneath the Huntington Beach Pier isn't an underwater paradise but glimpses of a terrifying underworld that cuts through the surface of the world we know like a shark's fin, cold and deadly and unforgettable.

Tapping the Source remains the most profound and disturbing modern fictional evocation I know of human evil. Its terrors and unease derive from its tight focus on a small, insular group of friends and lovers, work colleagues and surfing rivals, a tightly-knit chain of human connection and emotion that unravels the way a strand of DNA deteriorates when its telomeres become cancerous. Much of the novel takes place in sunlight upon a glittering expanse of emerald water; but it's the radioactive glare that erupts at the end of Kiss Me Deadly, not the benign glow of an endless summer.

Tapping the Source was published to critical acclaim, its jacket graced with blurbs from Robert Stone (who Nunn cites as an influence and mentor) and Elmore Leonard. A finalist for the National Book Award (which went to Harriet Doerr's Stones for Ibarra), optioned for a movie that was never made, the novel was both ahead of its time and firmly grounded in a vision as timeless as Melville's. There's an unforgiving, unflinching, Old Testament quality in its depiction of how evil worms its way into the soul: Nunn was raised in a strict Jehovah's Witness household, and it shows. At the novel's end we see retribution, and what we now call closure; but nothing like redemption.

I read Tapping the Source when it first came out and within a year or two was buying up remaindered copies to give to everyone I knew. Over the decades it's acquired a cult following (first editions will set you back a hundred bucks and more), a legendary book that's passed along the way the location and time of a secret swell is shared among hardcore surfers. Nunn's five other books are excellent, in particular Dogs of Winter and Tijuana Straits, which with his debut novel comprise a surf noir triology.

But it's Tapping the Source that I return to over and over again. My daughter read it when she was nineteen, and afterward got a tattoo based on the fictional surf shop logo that gives the book its name. A few months later, her father -- I'd turned him on to the book when we first met -- got the same piece of ink.

That's one tattoo I don't yet have. I'm not sure I need it. Kem Nunn's masterpiece is etched into my mind the way few other novels are. And unlike tattooer's ink, its brilliance and power show no sign of fading with the years.

Note to readers: Anyone interested in 1980s SoCal punk culture can get a taste of it in Penelope Spheeris's 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, along with the 2010 Darby Crash biopic What We Do Is Secret. A film version of Tapping the Source has yet to be made. Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break, long rumored to be loosely based on the novel, retains little more than its watery mileu. There's an interesting discussion of this in the comments section of fellow TtS fan Brian Lindenmuth's excellent appreciation in Spinetingler Magazine.

Kem Nunn's short-lived TV series John from Cincinnatti is available on DVD.

You can read more of Liz's writing at her website, friend her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.


  1. Wow Liz, you make TAPPING THE SOURCE sound irresistible, and I'm not a big noir fan!

    Tell us more about your new book please!

  2. I've got to get this book. It'll doubtless conjure up memories of LA in the 80s that should probably remain buried, but you've made it irresistible.

  3. OH, you just blew me away. Thank you.

    I have to write my words for the day now, and I can't decide if I'm inspired or depressed.

    And yes, I a free..tell us more about YOUR book! And thank you so much for the master class.

  4. I read Generation Loss and -- loved isn't quite the right word because the story and the characters are so prickly -- found it incredibly compelling, gutsy, hard to put down, hard to forget. Looking forward to Dark Wave. Is Cass back? And can you talk a little about about the title? "Generation Loss" was so perfect for the last book -- I'm sure Dark Wave echoes the new book's themes.

  5. Sounds absolutely brilliant! Cannot wait!