Tuesday, June 02, 2009


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:

You’d barely see him for half an hour and then a set would break out wide, like a squall rolling into the bay, and you’d suddenly pick out the white squirt of a wake on the grey-brown crags of a wave big and ugly enough to make you shiver. There he would be, that tiny figure, strangely upright and nonchalant, rising and swooping until he was close enough to be more than just a silhouette. His skill was extraordinary. There was something special about his insouciance and the princely manner in which he cross-stepped along his long, old-timey board, how he stalled and feinted and then surged in spurts of acceleration across the shoaling banks, barely ahead of the growling beast at his back, and when the wave fattened towards the deep channel in the middle of the bay, he’d stand at the very tip of the board with his spine arched and his head thrown back as if he’d just finished singing an anthem that nobody else could hear.The princely surfer turns out to be Billy Sanderson (“Sando,” as the boys call him), a legendary great from Australia’s golden age. Although they do not learn that until much later, Pikelet and Loonie want, naturally enough, to be just like Sando. He takes them under his wing and teaches them the sport of big wave surfing: “Years before people started speaking about extreme sports, we spurned the word extreme as unworthy,” Pikelet recalls. “What we did and what we were after, we told ourselves, was the extraordinary.”

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:Every day, people face down their own fears. They make calculations, bargains with God, strategic manoeuvres. That’s how we first crossed oceans and learnt to fly and split the atom, how we found the nerve to give up on all the old superstitions. Sando gestured grandly at the books against the wall. That’s mankind for you, he said. Our higher side. We rise to a challenge and set a course. We take a decision. You put your mind to something. Just deciding to do it gets you halfway there. Daring to try.This passage reminds me that Winton is known in Australia as a Christian novelist, and though other critics have struggled a bit to find the Christianity in Breath, it strikes me that Sando is offering an equivalent of Pascal’s wager. Man’s higher side is represented by the Christian, the artist, the adventurer—those who live by faith, the dare to try, instead of secure and predictable proofs:Such endeavors require a kind of egotism, a near-autistic narrowness. Everything conspires against you—the habits of physics, the impulse to flee—and you’re weighed down by every dollop of commonsense ever dished up. Everyone will tell you your goal is impossible, pointless, stupid, wasteful. So you hang tough. You back yourself and only yourself. This idiot resolve is all you have.As the boys take greater and greater risks, Breath builds a feeling of dread that some tragedy is coming. If the catastrophe is something of a letdown—if the explanation for Pikelet’s knowledge of asphixiation is far more ordinary than his surfing, if Winton tries to stuff several years into his ending after the intense few months that Pikelet and Loonie spend in devotion to Sando—that can be chalked up to the novelist’s ambition. In Breath, Winton seeks to capture both the exhilaration of faith and the spirit-exhausting despair of its loss. And to do so, what is more, in around two hundred pages. He can’t quite pull it off.

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:Even from the purely human point of view . . . the phenomenon of grace must still appear sufficiently extraordinary, eminent, and rare [these are precisely the qualities that Pikelet emphasizes], both in its nature and its effects, to deserve a closer study. For the soul arrives thereby at a certain fixed and invincible state, a state which is genuinely heroic, and from out of which the greatest deeds which it ever performs are executed.Say that the novel is sublime in artistic effect, then; representing a state of grace.

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?


Jay Sandvos said...

Breath is a beautiful lyrical novel by a master.

litlove said...

Interesting - so Breath is a kind of contemporary encounter with the sublime? Yes, I think that works for me. Winton was shortlisted for the Booker with Dirt Music, so he is as known in the UK as authors like William Boyd and Adam Thorpe.

Anonymous said...

Tim Winton is in fact very well known in the UK -- at least as much as any literary novelist; indeed, there is a major advertising campaign for the paperback release of BREATH, including posters on the Underground. Also, he was born in 1960, not 1962.

D. G. Myers said...

Got it. He’s known in Australia and the UK. Not so much in the U.S. Since these things are difficult to document, I’m not sure how this affects my larger point—namely, he deserves more attention, no matter how well he is known—but you’ve got me.

Birthdate changed. Dumb typo. Relative to Franzen (b. 1959) and Chabon (b. 1963), I had it right.

NigelBeale said...

You might be interested in listening to this interview conducted with Winton several years ago, here: