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Young Men and the Sea

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, June 27, 2008

BREATH

By Tim Winton

Farrar Straus Giroux. 217 pp. $23

Iused to teach an undergraduate class in Australian literature. It was open to non-English majors and fulfilled a general requirement, so routinely a couple of hundred disaffected youths would crowd into a large classroom and emerge, at the end of the course, as dithering fanatics saving up for plane fare to Australia. They fell dead in love; they loved Peter Carey, Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley, but they worshiped Tim Winton. For a while they went around asking each other, "Why don't people know more about this guy? He's the most amazing man in the world!"

And it's true. When Winton was still in his 20s he wrote "Shallows," a dark masterpiece about whaling that ranks with (or above?) "Moby-Dick." His "Cloudstreet" talks about class and caste and love and our inexplicable wish for death and our relationship to the universe. It's the Hope Diamond of novels -- the one that set my students' teeth to chattering. He's produced 11 volumes of novels and short stories, but he lives in western Australia, one of the remotest parts of the world. People don't know about him. They don't know what they're missing.

With a very few exceptions, Winton writes literally from where he is -- from a young country originally populated by Aborigines, then 18th-century English convicts and their guards, layered with a wave of post-World War II immigrants. There's forest in western Australia and an ocean with some of the best surfing in the world, but it's not a luxurious place to live. He writes about trailer parks and long bus rides, about swimming, about whether travel abroad is worth the trouble. And he writes about human beings' relationships to their parents, lovers, spouses, children and the cosmos. He writes about how these relationships yield up great beauty, but also how we almost always screw them up.

"Breath," Winton's latest novel, is stunning in the depth of its audacity. Because, when you think about it, breath is our relationship to the cosmos. We breathe in an iota of the universe, we breathe it out; without it, we die. But then why is there something in us that makes us want to hold our breath as kids until we pass out, or makes us just stop breathing while we're sleeping until our rattled partners shake us awake?

In "Breath," Winton sets up an ancient Australian forest against a beautiful seacoast with plenty of turbulent weather -- there seem always to be storms coming in. All this dwarfs a brutally ordinary little town with a mill where the father of a boy called Pikelet goes every day to risk his life. Pikelet is 11 when the novel begins and spends much of his free time swimming in the river, diving down, holding on to tree roots, holding his breath until he sees stars. That's how he meets Loonie, a year older, who shares the same obsession. Pikelet, little fish; Loonie -- yes, he's crazy as hell. The two swim, dive, goof off, do odd jobs and finally bike out a few miles to the ocean where they meet some surfers.

They also encounter a mysterious couple who could be from another planet: Sando, a bearded beach bum in his 30s, a fearless fanatical surfer, and Eva, his cranky wife, who -- we find out later -- used to be an extreme skier. She's suffered an injury and walks with a limp. Sando befriends the boys and teaches them (perhaps) everything he knows.

This would seem to be a novel about surfing, from fiddling around with your first little Styrofoam board to riding waves that are three stories high and a mile offshore. The boys surf in secret; their parents disapprove (for different reasons) of them hanging out with this strange hippie couple. (The novel's main action takes place in the late 1960s and early '70s.) The boys' secret is dear to them; they crave the exhilaration of simply riding a wave, the terror that goes with the deprivation of air, the enormous relief of the first deep breath after having been scraped along rocks and sand for an eternity at the bottom of the sea.

Surfing is only the metaphor. Why are Sando and Eva out here in the middle of nowhere? Why are their only friends two lonely little boys? Most coming-of-age novels end on a note of triumph. But "Breath" is about moving out of your depth, getting in over your head, having your soul damaged beyond repair. Two of the four main characters don't make it, and there's another inevitable death. But against all this pointless sorrow, there remains the evanescent beauty of the world, and Winton matches that with limitlessly beautiful prose.

Sunday in Book World

· Powerful stories about children in Africa.

· Ethan Canin's "America America."

· Military families after their soldiers die.

· Tales from modern China.

· And a passionate defense of nerds.

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