Surf Noir: “The Tribes of Palos Verdes”

I knew about “The Tribes of Palos Verdes” (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) when it first came out, and I was interested in reading it for what appeared to be its local surf setting. We used to go snorkel diving in the coves around Palos Verdes, the small peninsula that gives Los Angeles’s Santa Monica Bay its southern boundary, in the late 50’s and early 60s. We drove down through the beach cities to Palos Verdes from El Segundo. We did not wear wet suits, and I don’t remember many houses on the cliffs, or any problems with locals (key themes for Medina, the teenaged, first person narrator of “Tribes”). The coves consisted of rocky bottoms and kelp beds. Later, we surfed Haggerty’s and The Cove a few times. But if you live close to a beach, you tend to stay local, and El Porto was our local beach, so over the years, we didn’t get down to Palos Verdes very often. And I didn’t get around to reading “Tribes” until just recently.

It seems two basic views of surfing, of surf culture, dominate popular depictions. One is bright and sunny, and emphasizes a water sport, a recreational activity. The other is dark and dangerous, and emphasizes behaviors that may not have anything to do with wave riding. The argument is a fallacious dichotomy, and I don’t subscribe to either view, but it might be useful in describing writing with background themes of surfing. At the Catholic high school I attended, in Playa del Rey, surfers were viewed with a certain suspicion, for the sport (if it was even begrudgingly called a sport at the time) was an off-campus, un-sanctioned activity. This view was further tainted by corny media representation in films and music, but why couldn’t the teachers see through that? A kid couldn’t just have fun with a surfboard in the water. He had to be part of a growing sub-culture which at best wasted its time hanging out at the beach and at worst was infused with anti-social sentiment characterized by rebellious attitudes illustrated by long hair, non-participation in team sports, resin-sniffing.

Yet most of the surfers I knew were in better physical shape than the football players with their damaged knees and light concussions. And surfing has gone on to occupy a singular place in today’s sporting world, combining health, spirit, and organic virtues. Surfing cannot get caged in an arena. Yet, in any case, perhaps, at least in “Tribes,” we hear the teen spirit asking, how do we know what’s good for us if we don’t taste some bad every now and then? Perhaps this explains the taste for noir. Thus D. H. Lawrence looks at Browning’s “God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!,” and comes up with (from his poem titled “Nemesis” – from “Pansies,” 1929):

“The Nemesis that awaits our civilsation
is social insanity
which in the end is always homicidal.
Sanity means the wholeness of the consciousness.
And our society is only part conscious, like an idiot.

If we do not rapidly open all the doors of consciousness
and freshen the putrid little space in which we are cribbed
the sky-blue walls of our unventilated heaven
will be bright red with blood.”

Anyway, as a result of a recent, random conversation that mentioned “Tribes,” I finally did get a copy (at Powell’s, 1st edition hardback, signed by the author, – what a find! – if you like that sort of thing), and read with pleasure Joy Nicholson’s book. And the sky blue walls of Medina’s Palos Verdes are unventilated, much of the surfing takes place at night, and the sport is infused with a noir spirit. I was reminded of Kem Nunn’s surf-themed books, “Tijuana Straits” (Scribner, 2004) for example, which I did read when it first came out. The reader is asked, in both books, to suspend judgement with regard to certain aspects of surfing and local conditions. It’s unclear how, for example, surfers in Joy’s book could possibly be seen from the front window of her house; likewise, the last wave Nunn’s surfer-hero rides, across the U. S. and Mexico boundary, peaks with poetic license. In both books, surfing is as much figurative as literal.

Back to D. H. Lawrence, where we find we should

“Be still!

The only thing to be done, now,
now that the waves of our undoing have begun to strike
on us,
is to contain ourselves.

To keep still, and let the wreckage of ourselves go,
let everything go, as the wave smashes us,
yet keep still, and hold
the tiny grain of something that no wave can wash away,
not even the most massive wave of destiny.

Among all the smashed debris of myself
keep quiet, and wait.
For the word is Resurrection.
And even the sea of seas will have to give up its dead.”

Joy’s book is a dark depiction of teen life in a toxic family and local social environment driven by stereotyped trappings of upper-middle class wealth. The values described are popularly depicted, but the teen perception is sharp in its single, unflinching vision. The toxicity, toward the end of the book, grows to mythic proportions as a famous red tide is stretched to figurative means, and the book speeds toward a final, conclusive wipe out. “Tribes” is divided into seven, un-numbered chapters consisting of 218 short, un-numbered sections, separated by sets of wave looking tildes (~ ~ ~): Waves (81 sections); Rocks (41); Motion (22); Tide (13); Fire (44); Salt (6); Stars (11). Surfing is largely a figurative theme throughout, and the language is remarkably clear of metaphor. The dialog is crisp and the narrator’s voice sarcastic in what would seem true to her age and setting.