G. Murray Thomas's Paper Shredders: An Anthology of Surf Writing
What a trip down 1 Summer Memory Lane. Finally, a book that harkens me back to my grommet days. The spot was Rincon, Puerto Rico, and the boards in those days were longer than your car. I was eleven, too poor to own one, but everybody left their boards in their garages or on their verandas and it was nothing to snake one during working hours and have it back in place before the owner got home, wet, salty, and sponged. Rincon is still known for the riptide but the waves are consistent, even in the middle of the day, so gradually it became the dour tourist attraction that it is today. Back then, I almost lost an eye about 200 yards out on a collision with a kook four times my size, effectively ending my summer. That same year we moved to Tennessee and a full day's drive to the nearest beach. But that young passion remained, a feeling hard to express because of its uniqueness. Paper Shredders, An Anthology of Surf Writing captures the passion perfectly. The one thing that all the writers in the anthology have in common is a true love for the sport of surfing.
Not all the pieces in the anthology are poetry. In fact, the strongest pieces are the short stories. But some of the poetry is exceptional. Hardly any of the verses are retrospective and the reader gets a strong sense that these writers still surf today, like this very morning, and that some of the pieces were written right after a cathartic session on the waves. Exhilaration is a thematic mood throughout the book, joy, bliss, delight, ecstasy:
For there is no freedom that exists except this freedom
Even away from the water
We carry this ocean with us"
- Lawrence Shultz, We Surf
Freedom is another recurring theme, or rather the search for freedom, which took many of the writers around the world, looking for the best surf spots to find such elusive freedom. The prose strength lies primarily in the travelogue quality. The short stories in the book transport the reader to The Bahamas, Hawaii, Peru, Bali, even the frigid coast of Maine. Each location is rendered to a fault but always in light of the awe of the ocean call, realizing that despite differences in culture, mother nature does bring all people together. My favorite story is "Quenching a Soul" by Terrence E. Dunn. He basically describes a vacation from hell in a remote part of the Peruvian coast. The food is awful, the bathroom doesn't work, the plumbing nonexistent, the locals are rude, but the surfing, aahhh the surfing,
"my first wave was a beautiful eight footer with an unseeably long left wall. I made the long, deep drop, let out a scream, and even before I made the bottom turn and started to climb the face of the wall that would be in front of me, I knew that all the traveling, all the hassles, all the headaches- everything- was worth it"
The writers let you know that this well-documented love for surfing stems out of extensive experience. These are not novice weekend aficionados but focused surfers who have made a life-long commitment to the sport. Even the wives of the surfers felt compelled to add their views on surfing to the anthology but only as passive observers. I wished that at least one female wrote about her first-person surfing experience but only one (Christine Trzyna) wrote a poem with an active voice and the poem was about climbing some risky cliffs to get a better ocean view.
In fact, the weakness of the book is an inherent insularity. This is surf literature written for other surfers, with a liberal use of slang and terminology that would confuse the uninitiated reader. After reading the bios, only one person (again, Christine Trzyna) admits to not currently being a surfer, which beg the questions- is this sport so unique that its art cannot effectively be imagined by those who have never experienced it? Can non-surfers successfully write about surfing?
Undoubtedly, and maybe this imagined surf writing can bring more balance to a future anthology because every single piece in the anthology was an adulation to the sport- verging on blind worship. The few negative aspects found sprinkled in the book are focused on outsiders intruding, on those interlopers crashing the scene. The writers do a good job in describing and relating their passion but seem almost selfish in wanting to share the bounty. They basically say, this is how great surfing feels, if you are special enough to master it. They emerge as a breed apart.
And this focus on only the positive transcendence of the sport, I'm sure, is what led the editors to include some substandard work, literary speaking. Some pieces were jarring, enjambed, cliched, but were so giddy and happy as to be almost contagious, again that word- exhilarating. But that is the nature of a thematic anthology, where only some of the writing has high literary value, and where literary value takes a backseat to the overall theme.
I so enjoyed this book that I took it to the beach with me. I felt old watching the young slicers on the silver waves. I have either gotten really large or the boards have shrunk substantially. Would I risk another six months with a patch over my eye just to capture a feeling I have never been able to duplicate since I was eleven? Could I? The words of Larry Shultz spring to mind. From my favorite poem in the anthology, "Surfing at 40":
There is no such thing as youth,
There is no such thing as age
the distance between years
is no greater
than the distance
Paper Shredders, An Anthology of Surf Writing. Editors, G. Murray Thomas and Gary Wright, Copyright 2005, ISBN-13: 978-0-595-35131-02, $12.00