I finished this last week and still don’t know what to say beyond Breath is a skillfully written and surprisingly interesting novel which I’d recommend you read. In the interests of elucidation however…
The novel opens with ambo Bruce Pike (aka Pikelet) attending a teenage boy found hanging in his bedroom. From the first page, Pikelet’s voice is authentic and immediate (something that doesn’t change over the course of 200 odd pages all in the first person). He realizes:
“that this job’s become a pack and carry. Usually they see the uniform and light up with it, but neither of them gives me as much as a glance.
The bedroom in question isn’t hard to find. A little mat of vomit in the hall. Splinters of wood. I step over the broken-down door and see the mother at the bed where the boy is laid out, and as I quietly introduce myself I take it all in. The room smells of pot and urine and disinfectant and it’s clear that she’s cut him down and dressed him and tidied everything up.
I slip in beside her and do the business but the kid’s been gone a while. He looks about seventeen. There are ligature marks on his neck and older bruises around them. Even while I’m going through the motions she strokes the boy’s dark, curly hair. A nice-looking kid. She’s washed him. He smells of Pears soap and freshly laundered clothes. I ask for her name and for her son’s, and she tells me that she’s June and the boy’s name is Aaron.
I’m sorry, June, I murmur, but he’s passed away.
I know that.
Is there anyone else you’d like me to call?
Jodie and two cops appear at the door.
Call? says June. You can call my son back. As you can see, he’s not listening to his mother.”
This death sets off Pikelet’s recollection of his own adolescence, the defining (and damaging) years in which he recklessly took risks for kicks. Pikelet is the only child of ten pound Poms who’ve migrated to the mill town of Sawyer. He makes friends with Ivan Loon on the basis of a shared love of thrill seeking. Or as Pikelet puts it “We scared people, pushing each other harder and further until often as not we scared ourselves.”
Initially, this takes the harmless enough form of diving into the river and holding their breath underwater. One Saturday though, the boys hitch a lift to the beach with some surfers and it’s love at first sight. Winton writes lyrically of surfing in all its “useless beauty” and although I’m not a surfer I was swept along by Pikelet’s passion. With writing as good as this-
“On a still morning in late September, in a lull between cold fronts, Loonie and I pedalled with our boards to the Point where the waves were small and clean and the cold water was as clear as the sky. We sat inside at the mellow edge of the rip and paddled into waist-high rollers that carried us hooting and howling in to the beach. We had the place to ourselves. The sandbanks rippled underfoot, schools of herring swerved and morphed as one in the channel, and across in the bay the breaths of breaching dolphins hung in the air.
I will always remember my first wave that morning. The smells of paraffin wax and brine and peppy scrub. The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward and I sprang to my feet, skating with the wind of momentum in my ears. I leant across the wall of the upstanding water and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary watching figure on the beach and the flash of Loonie’s smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated. And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.”
– how can you not be?
Surfing leads the boys to becoming friends with a local couple, Sando and Eva. Sando, a retired champion surfer, takes the boys under his wing and this doesn’t seem too bad to begin with. Their obsessive focus on surfing doesn’t do their schoolwork any favours, but they’re young after all. Unfortunately though, the boys are increasingly in Sando’s thrall, taking ever bigger risks to impress him and feel extraordinary. This weakens their friendship and leads Pikelet to reflect:
“This winter I’d seen and done stuff I could never have imagined previously. Things had borne down so quickly on me that it was brain-shaking. For the past few months I’d been an outrider, a trailblazer, and the excitement and strangeness of it had changed me. There was such an intoxicating power to be had from doing things that no one else dared try. But once we started talking about the Nautilus I got the creeping sense that I’d begun something I didn’t know how to finish.”
And at this point, he doesn’t know the half of it! As a reader, the story’s tension builds and builds like one of the giant waves Pikelet surfs and you wait breathlessly for the inevitable crash. Pikelet, who’s really just a kid for all his bravado (albeit one addicted to danger) is drawn into doing things he really doesn’t want to.
When it all ends, Pikelet initially seems okay. He realizes:
“there was no room left in my life for stupid risks. Death was everywhere- waiting, welling, undiminished. It would always be coming for me and for mine and I told myself I could no longer afford the thrill of courting it.”
and seems to get on with things. But as he describes in a few pages how he got to where he is now, it is evident that Pikelet was and is deeply affected by those few years so vividly recalled. The rest of his life seems like a mere postscript:
“I didn’t exactly pull myself together- I got past such notions- but bits of me did come around again, as flies or memories or subatomic particles will for reasons of their own. Bit by bit I congregated, I suppose you could say, and then somehow I cohered. I went on and had another life. Or went ahead and made the best of the old one.”
I cried for the boy Pikelet was and the man he became. Breath is elegiac in tone, but it is not a grand tragedy. Rather, it is the small story of one man’s life and his attempt to rebel “against the monotony of drawing breath.” It is a literary page-turner, full of quietly touching moments leavened by laconic humour and of course, descriptions of the joys of surfing.
As you may have gathered, I was impressed by my first Winton read and am looking forward to reading more by him. Recommendations are welcome- otherwise I’ll just read what strikes my fancy.
There was an interesting interview with Tim Winton in The Age last week, which you can read here.