Tim Winton, Breath (New York: Picador, 2008). 218 pp. $14.00.
Tim Winton is one of the most important and interesting novelists now writing in the English language, but few readers
outside of Australia in the U.S. know much about him. Born in Perth in August 1960, the son of a policeman—he is a year younger than Jonathan Franzen and three years older than Michael Chabon—he seems to belong to a different world and time. It is not simply that his fiction is located in Western Australia, at the shoreline of human civilization, full of places (as he writes in Dirt Music) that are “isolated, almost secret, and beyond the reach of the law and the dampening influence of domesticity.” Nor does he seem out of step with other novelists of his generation because his prose is large-framed and uncompromising rather than infatuated and barely under control. Winton is distinctive, and deserves a wider audience outside of Australia, because he writes forcefully (and beautifully) of a world that people would prefer to be meaningless than without forgiveness.
Breath, his ninth novel, released in paperback this month, is an ideal introduction to Winton’s fiction. It is about half the length of Cloudstreet (1991) and Dirt Music (2001), his best-known books. Cloudstreet is a saga stretching from the Second World War to the early ’sixties of two Perth families that end up sharing one roof. Dirt Music traces the reawakening of two lost souls: a fish poacher who has lost his entire family in a rollover accident and an ex-nurse who has lost her calling, her ability to love, and any sense of boundaries in life. Winton is particularly good at gnarled relationships that might as well be nuclear families given their capacity for tenderness, disappointment, terror, instruction, and shame. Breath is little different in that respect, but the relationships sprout up and fan out more quickly than in Winton’s previous books.
The novel opens as Bruce Pike, a fiftyish paramedic, answers an emergency call to find that a seventeen-year-old boy has hanged himself in an act of autoerotic asphyxiation. His crisply uniformed and pony-tailed partner, about the age of his daughters, asks how he knows that the boy’s death was not a suicide. “Maybe another time,” he says. The rest of the novel is an explanation of how he knows. He must turn to his past to explain. A “lone child and solitary by nature,” Pike was befriended many years earlier by Ivan Loon, the publican’s son who thrives on daredevil stunts. Pikelet and Loonie, as they call each other, progress rapidly from daring to see who can remain under water the longest to surfing the “great, heaving waves” of the West Coast with makeshift styrafoam boards lacking fins.
One surfer leads them to wonder:
There in a word is the novel’s theme. The mill town in which they live is “pointless and puny,” and the townspeople they dwell among are “cowed and weak and ordinary,” satisfied with “the monotony of drawing breath.” Sando instructs the boys in a “warrior spirit,” the “implacable need to win the day.” Under his tutelege, they proceed by carefully measured steps from surfing on a great white shark’s reef to catching twenty-foot waves a mile offshore and eventually to the gigantic swells breaking over a submarine rock called the Nautilus five miles from land—“a wave no surfer had seen, let alone ridden.” Pikelet is scared even to talk about it. No shame in that, Sando says:
But the passages on surfing, and the spiritual heights to which the sport lifts the boys and the reader, are more than enough to forgive the postscript-like ending. Few contemporary writers with “serious” ambitions are as comfortable as Winton in letting the story carry the philosophical theme. As I have said before on this blog, Winton most closely resembles Richard Russo among his contemporaries in America. Like Russo’s, Winton’s novels are stories about men and women who are extraordinary in their humanness, and endlessly fascinating. As Pikelet concludes, “People are fools, not monsters.” In Breath, Winton’s people are fools for the extraordinary, and they carry the ordinary reader along.
Update, I: Litlove asks whether “Breath is a kind of contemporary encounter with the sublime.” I would not phrase it like that. Unless the word is used narrowly in the sense in which “Longinus” introduced it in the Peri hypsos, I would use another word. “Longinus” says that the effect of sublimity in language is not persuasion but transport. And something like this is what I was trying to get at in my closing sentence. Breath blows the reader into the waves, and you are transported along with Sando, Pikelet, and Loonie as they try to ride them. A better term for the experience Winton is describing is “state of grace.” Here is Sainte-Beuve from James’s Varieties of Religious Experience:
Update, II: Winton’s novel was reviewed by Matthew Condon in the Courier Mail, Russell Celyn Jones in the Times of London, Kerryn Goldsworthy in the Weekend Australian, James Bradley in the Age, Andrew Riemer in the Sydney Morning Herald, Adam Lively in the Sunday Times, Helen Gordon in the Observer, Catherine Keenan in the Sydney Sun Herald, Carmen Lawrence in the Australian, Patrick Ness in the Guardian, Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, Stephen Abell in the Daily Telegraph, Andy Martin in the Independent, Kathryn Crim (who wrongly characterized it as a “coming-of-age tale”) in the Los Angeles Times, Maggie Bell at Blogcritics, Dan Styles at Suite101, Kara Martin at Open House, Guy Somerset at the New Zealand Listener, Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Times Book Review, Cathleen Schine in the New York Review of Books, Robert Wiersema in the Windsor Star, and Helen Falding in the Winnepeg Free Press. “If there’s a movement afoot to get more adult men reading contemporary literature,” Falding writes, “then Tim’s your man.” Then why were so many women assigned to review the novel?