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Winton's Surf Will Leave You 'Breath'-Less

Winton devotes extreme attention to issues of landscape and geography in his novels.
Winton devotes extreme attention to issues of landscape and geography in his novels.

Pitch down a 15-foot wall of water as it detonates beneath you and you'll know why so many surfers have a blissed-out glaze in their eyes. In Breath, Tim Winton brings their endorphin-soused world to life for the vicarious set.

Two teenage mill-town boys on Australia's western coast fall under the spell of a 36-year-old drifter and his enigmatic American wife. Bidding for the man's approval, these best friends — Loonie and Bruce — ratchet up their daredevilry, eventually shattering the innocence that binds them. It's hard to imagine a more formulaic coming-of-age story, but there also won't be a better novel on surfing published anytime soon.

Winton grew up on this Australia coast and has recreated its landscape in previous fiction (Shallows; Dirt Music), but Breath features some of his most muscular, weather-beaten prose yet. It froths and swirls and boots this story along with a vengeance. A surfer and naturalist, Winton describes the water with a mystical fury that recalls Cormac McCarthy's portraits of the Texas plains. In one memorable scene, Bruce stands up on his board for the first time: "I only got to my feet from instinct, but there I suddenly was, upright and alive, skittering in front of all that jawing mess with my little board chattering underfoot."

Like so many teenagers, Bruce and Loonie want to be reborn in a more heroic mold — and they start taking risks on shore, too. Bruce begins a reckless affair; Loonie leaves his father's pub life behind. It's a vivid time in their lives, but the thrill comes not from what they do, but knowing they have pushed themselves beyond fear. "It takes quite some will-power to defy the logic of your own body," Bruce says, about holding his breath until he saw stars, "to take yourself to the shimmering edge."

For all the readers who survived a reckless adolescence, this gorgeous summer novel will take you back there, one more time.

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John Freeman
John Freeman is the editor of Grantamagazine. A former president of the National Book Critics Circle, his criticism has appeared in publications around the world, including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Book Review. His latest book is The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox.