Four Books, By Surfers


Strolling through a friend’s parents’ house at the weekend, I noticed a copy of Breath by Tim Winton on the coffee table, with Simon Baker on the cover.

Holy shit, I thought, they’re pumping out re-issues of the book draped in imagery from the movie and it’s not even out yet. If the book’s found itself into the hands of those whose reading usually consists of Netflix blurbs—to find out how far through a series they are—then chances are Simon Baker’s cinematic rendition of Breath (complete with spontaneous erotic-asphyxiation) is going to kick-start Mr Winton selling a whole lot more books. And deservedly so—the guy’s a don of the written word. But it got me thinking. Surfers are generally a narrow-minded bunch—a theory reflected in the number of highly impractical pro-surfer-model surfcraft populating lineups around the globe—but they’re not all brain-dead. In fact, a number have written pretty damn good books. Here’s four of the best.

Barbarian Days – William Finnegan

New Yorker writer William Finnegan’s memoir of a life based loosely around surfing, is simply perfect. From his formative years as a junior haole in Hawaii, through Samoa, Fiji, Indonesia and Australia, to playing Doc’s games in San Francisco before finally settling in New York and endless travel in between, it’s a stunningly rich depiction of the life of the travelling surfer: travel, history, sociology, politics, and philosophy all expertly and engagingly woven into the narrative. Winner of the Biography/Autobiography Pulitzer in 2016, another surfing first.

MP – Sean Doherty

Sean Doherty is perhaps surfing’s foremost proponent of sniffing out a story, and this may well be his best. In terms of a protagonist, a paranoid schizophrenic heroin addict who happened to be the best surfer of his generation is a pretty worthy subject. But that’s merely scratching the surface. Set against a backdrop of one of the most significant periods of social change in Australian, and indeed the world, the story of Michael Peterson is a page-turning study of mental illness and its effects on family, peers, and surfing itself. MP is masterfully told through Doherty’s scrutinous research, and it gives a warts and all look at one of the most mythical surfers the culture’s ever come across.

Breath – Tim Winton

Cloudstreet is Winton’s masterpiece, but seeing as it kickstarted this collection, Breath it is. Set in the fictional town of Sawyer (which taking into account the news bit on TV about increased tourism in the area, everyone now knows to be Denmark in southwestern WA), Breath is Winton’s commentary on coming of age in a remote coastal Australia opus. Seeing as it’s his thing, it’s unsurprising that Winton manages to capture the beauty and horror of growing up as a young male surfer, and all the machismo bullshit that goes along with it, absolutely perfectly. Don’t see the film without reading the book, it’d be an insult to Winton’s work.

In Search of Captain Zero – Allan Weisbecker

“One should never drive away from good surf,” is just one of the many iconic classic lines you’ll find in Weisbecker’s drug-addled memoir charting his quest to find long-lost pal Patrick who’s disappeared in Central America. A ripping good yarn with everything you’d expect from degenerate surf travel through Mexico and Central America in the ’90s. Also worth noting, is that the book was optioned for a movie some time ago by Sean Penn. Weisbecker was brought on to write the first screen adaptation, it all went tits up, and Weisbecker claimed that, “No one who wants to make a movie out of my book is smart enough to get it done.” Here’s cheers to being a painful bastard writer and never looking back.

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