Set on Australia's southwestern coast, Tim Winton's ninth novel is a coming-of-age story told in a terse yet elegant style perfectly suited to its characters, conflicts and landscapes.
Like every book of its kind, Breath dramatizes the joy of self-discovery and the inevitability of disillusion, how "life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath upon breath."
Breath is narrated mostly in flashback by a 50-year-old emergency medical technician named Bruce Pike. Swimming in the local river one summer day, 11-year-old "Pikelet" — "a lone child and solitary by nature" — meets his feral opposite, Ivan Loon, called "Loonie."
The two spend hours "kicking down … to hold our breaths so long that our heads were full of stars." The pair soon discover surfing, "the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful" that fuels Pikelet's terrors and epiphanies for the next four years. He fears above all being ordinary, but he learns through experience and observation the heavy price of refusing to accept limits.
At the end of the first day the boys spend on the water, a "bloke with his board-bump knees drawn up to his beard" offers them a ride home. This short drive is the first of many journeys on which ex-champion and self-styled surfing guru Bill "Sando" Sanderson will lead them.
Winton writes so well about surfing even those wary of the water may find themselves entranced enough to give it a try. The set pieces that punctuate the stages of Pikelet's journey to the limits of his skill and desire fairly sing with ecstasy and longing, as when he watches Sando surf a rock formation miles out to sea called the Nautilus:
"Sando staggered a moment, almost falling out of the face altogether. But he kept his feet and cranked the Brewer around with a strength I knew was beyond me. The fin bit. He surged forwards as the wave began to lurch and dilate, reef fuming and gurgling below. … He was gone a moment, like a bone in the thing's throat. And then a squall of spume belched him free and it was over."
Sando chooses Loonie as his favorite, and they leave for weeks at a time, their whereabouts and activities the subject of increasingly colorful rumor among local surfers. Lonely and bored, Pikelet finds excuses to visit Sando's wife, Eva, an American "extreme" skier with a knee so ravaged she's addicted to painkillers. The two begin an affair that starts the novel down a more and more rocky path in its last 50 pages.
In short order, the novel traces the next 35 years of Pike's damaged adult life, relying as it must on exposition — often beautifully written, but no match for the crisp, frequently eloquent prose of the first part of the book.
Despite its flaws, Breath should enhance Winton's American reputation. It's a fast read that digs deep, proving once again that in the hands of a skilled writer, the metamorphosis from child to adult can yield fresh discoveries.
John Repp is a poet, fiction writer and book critic living in Erie, Pa.