Loved it! Here's the review I wrote for THE BIG ISSUE:
I’ve been surfing for over twenty years and, in my opinion, most writers who take on the topic oLoved it! Here's the review I wrote for THE BIG ISSUE:
I’ve been surfing for over twenty years and, in my opinion, most writers who take on the topic of surfing – especially literary writers – don’t quite get it right. Tim Winton’s Breath was the first Australian surf novel I’d read that nailed it. So when I heard there was a new surf novel coming out to rival Breath, I jumped at the opportunity to review it. Malcolm Knox’s brilliant fourth novel, The Life, zeroes-in on one of the most tumultuous periods of Australia’s near 100-year surfing history – the early 1970s. This was a time when surfing came of age in Australia; huge longboards were being cut down to smaller and more radical shapes, a profitable surf industry was starting to boom, and a new aggressive breed of surfer was emerging from the increasingly crowded urban environment.
Told from the point of view of Dennis Keith (DK), an ageing, overweight, obsessive-compulsive surfer, The Life recounts his rough upbringing and rise to fame on the Gold Coast, and the events surrounding his downfall. “DK sees himself as the first man of the new era,” says Knox, who has postponed going for a surf to make time for our interview. “He’s going to be the guy who takes advantage of it all, the guy who turns himself into a businessman and surfer, and leads the new wave. The tragedy of his story is that he’s not the first man of the new era; he’s the last man of the old era.”
It’s a story as much about the denaturing effects of fame as it is about surfing. Written in riffing, looping surf-slang, Knox has created a compelling portrait of a creative genius obsessed with the power of his own myth. In his youth, DK’s unpredictable and aggressive approach to surfing quickly earns him cult-like respect at his local break. In the water, he is a god, articulating everything he needs to say in the lines he draws on a wave. On land, however, he is a dysfunctional misfit; his thoughts churning in relentless cycles, often fixating on the surf, the lack of surf, other surfers wasting waves and the whereabouts of his girlfriend. When DK opens his mouth to speak, the words tend to come out in jumbled contradictions, so for the most part he prefers to remain silent. And it’s around this silence (and the white noise in his head) that the myth of ‘DK the legend’ begins to grow. Knox cleverly manipulates the narrative to reflect DK’s growing self-obsession, so that DK, in his rambling thoughts, sometimes addresses himself as I, sometimes you, sometimes he. At the onset of fame, DK says to himself: “1969 … That year you became DK, you became he. DK stories in Tracks, in Surfer, in Surfing. Pictures, loads of pictures. You couldn’t take your eyes off DK.” In the years to come, DK becomes trapped in a room full of mirrors. And it’s only when fame turns on him and he tries to smash his way out, that much of the psychological damage is done. “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,” says Knox, quoting American writer John Updike.
When I ask Knox his opinion of Breath, he says he greatly admires Winton’s achievement. In writing The Life, however, he wanted to come at the surf novel from a completely different angle, not locking the reader outside, but burying the reader deep within the mind of his enigmatic protagonist. And this is the very thing that makes The Life work.
Some readers familiar with Australian surfing history will pick-up on similarities between Knox’s fictional Dennis Keith (DK) and underground Gold Coast legend Michael Peterson (MP) – the revered surfer who lost his career to drugs and mental illness, quit surfing and who, to this day, lives in an apartment with his mum on the Gold Coast.* Knox acknowledges the similarities between his character and Peterson, but hastens to add that he didn’t want his character to be based on any one surfer. As such, he’s also drawn inspiration from other well-known surfers including Miki Dora, Eddy Aikau, Nat Young, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholemew and Mark “Occy” Occhilupo. Mashing these characters together into DK, Knox has created a fictional repository for surfing folklore, the sum of which, in my opinion, proves to be greater than the parts. Knox’s real achievement though, is the language, the eccentric narrative voice of DK, which repeats itself like waves breaking in an ocean that can never quite be still.
So, I ask Knox, were any unusual research methods you used in writing the book? “I got to do a lot of surfing,” Knox replies with a mischievous chuckle – but also, I note, the hint of something else in his voice. After a moment I realise what it is: impatience. There’s so much more I want to talk to him about – DK’s relationship with folk/rock singer Lisa Exmire and the mystery surrounding her disappearance, and DK’s relationship with the young surf journalist, who has more than a feature article on the great legend in mind – but I don’t want to hold him back any longer. Waves are going to waste. I wish him a fun surf and wind up the call, wondering what the surf conditions are like on Sydney’s north shore, and hoping that I’m not missing out on anything.