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Letter from L.A.: Read it again, Sam.

I recently reread Kem Nunn’s The Dogs of Winter. This might be my sixth time through the novel; I don’t know, I’ve lost track. Nunn, as some (all?) of you may know, writes, for lack of a better term, surf noir. He’s best known for his first book, 1984’s Tapping the Source, which was made into a truly horrible film (Point Break, starring, uh, Keanu Reeves). Tapping the Source (the book) features a naive and appealing young protagonist, motorcycle gangs, incest, and devil-worshipers. It’s engaging and full of excitement, but it’s also clearly an apprentice work, an opening shot at Nunn’s career-long preoccupations: the nature of evil, the appeal of the outlaw, the religion of the longboard. By 1997, when the The Dogs of Winter was published, he had this stuff down.

Dogs is a mature work, more ambitious, more developed, more more more. The plot is ingenious, far-fetched yet believable. The story is shockingly violent. The prose is vivid. The characters are fully realized, their fears and desires palpable. A self-conscious, pseudo-biblical tone does creep in here and there, and (to my sensibility) that small flaw sticks out more with every reading, and yet with every reading my love and admiration for the novel increases. Am I wasting my time? I could, after all, be rereading Middlemarch. But there is something in this particular story, in the particular way that it’s told, that speaks to me, and I’m always trying to figure out why. More to the point, how I can use that why to my writerly advantage. Which is what we do, always. Yes?

He lay on his back. The sand was warm here. The drug put him in a dreamy state. He began to study, from this position, the unnatural collision of earth and sky. For the cliffs were set here upon an incline, pitching forward above the sand, cutting patterns from the sky and so appearing, in that angle from which Fletcher viewed them, as the edges of continents, replete with inlets and peninsulas and jagged bays. The sky became the sea, upon whose surface thin rages of cloud swirled as might distant storms, allowing Fletcher to find in all of this an inverted reality. A fun-house mirror upon whose surface the land bowed and the sea undulated, but from which he and his companions, being of little consequence, had been omitted altogether.

3 comments on “Letter from L.A.: Read it again, Sam.

  1. andreadupree
    January 14, 2011

    Reading your lovely tribute, I feel that NOT having read Nunn’s work is akin to some form of literary negligence! This is stirring work, for sure, Karen. And I don’t think any of our writerly obsessions are wastes of time. It’s the whole reason we’re doing this, right? Finding things that surprise and delight us?

  2. Karen Palmer
    January 14, 2011

    Hey Andrea — Interesting too to think about who you write for, whether you intend to or not. I’m sure Nunn would be suprised to learn that I am his ideal reader. Edan Lepucki has a good post about this up at The Millions, which a favorite site (and I don’t look at many).

  3. John H
    January 30, 2011

    Okay, 3:30am and I just got done with Dogs of Winter. Thanks for pointing me at it, Karen, it is a wonderful piece of writing with much to teach me. It shouldn’t have been as hard to come up with a copy, even this far from the beach.

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This entry was posted on January 13, 2011 by in Uncategorized.

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