Book review: Kook, What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave, by Peter Heller

Sunday, August 1, 2010


What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave

By Peter Heller

Free Press. 326 pp. Paperback, $15

At age 45, Peter Heller was unmarried and questioning his life's path. In the throes of a midlife crisis, he and a buddy decided to -- what else? -- learn to surf in California. Then there was a second problem: He became addicted to the waves' "throb and drum of contraction and collapse, the rush and hiss around it in constant surge and recession."

The book that resulted follows Heller on a six-month journey through Mexico behind the wheel of a VW camper in search of the best swells. He starts as a "kook," derisive slang for a beginner, and quickly finds that surfing includes "sand in your crotch, salt-stung eyes, banged temple, chipped tooth, screaming back, and sunburned ears." Nonetheless, he's totally in love with the sport, dude, and willingly endures the abuse for the chance to ride the waves like a "speeding bullet, or torpedo, of euphoria." A whole lot happens along the way: The car breaks down, he gets married, and he goes back to his day job writing about other things, such as tracking the social movements of humpback whales in Antarctica.

Unfortunately, Heller describes the most promising episode only cursorily: his escapades during a brief respite from surfing spent with Hollywood actress Hayden Panattiere and animal rights activist Ric O'Barry, trainer of the TV dolphin Flipper, in the Japanese sea town of Taiji. Heller's experiences there were featured in "The Cove," the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary uncovering a bloody massacre of the marine mammals for their meat.

While this memoir about self-discovery and the joys of surfing is enjoyable enough, a book about the tragedy Heller witnessed in Taiji would have been more interesting and possibly also more fulfilling.

-- T. Rees Shapiro

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