The sun was climbing fast by the time he reached the Sea View, heating up the streets, and the machinery of the town was heating up as well, moving into high gear now, the boomer gear, greased with hash oil and cocoa butter, hot-wired with cocaine, chugging to some New Wave anthem, and his heart was beating time, hammering erratically as he reached his room and stepped inside. What (Ike) knew for certain, leaning against his doorjamb, staring into the shabby room, was that he was not the same person who had stood there the night before.
The mud had already engulfed the great tabernacle of his chest and much of his neck and there was little (Nacho) could do by the time the others found him, save tilt that great head in one last effort to draw breath, so that as Armando and Chico reached the edge of the bog, all that actually remained of their companion was his face - as if that appendage had been flayed then spread upon the muddy ground in performance of a ghastly ritual. Or perhaps that scarred visage had been no more than a Halloween mask all along, fallen now in the aftermath of some reverie. But this sank too, even as they watched it, the mud closing over it, until all that lingered were a few unctuous bubbles. And finally these too were gone and everything that had been Nacho was gone with them, taken into the earth even as the bubbles were taken into the air, yet to what depth and station of hell he might descend, there were none there to say with certainty.
These two passages were written by "surf noir master" Kem Nunn. The first comes from Tapping The Source (published 1984), the latter from Tijuana Straits (2004). People luuuuv Tapping: it has a cult following that grows little by little with every passing year. Tijuana Straits, on the other hand, is likely fated to be one of those items which "Nunn completists" late-to-the-fold will seek out and pay scant few bucks for.
I frankly think the first passage is superior, word for word, to the latter. We get a fairly straight-forward picture of Ike, Tapping's protagonist, in the throes of a well-deserved hangover. In one night's extended stretch of bacchanalian excess, he has indeed opened the doors of perception. He now sees everything differently: the town he's come to save his sister from, his relationship with the girl down the hall (addressed in an earlier paragraph - I left it alone to avoid any spoilers), and most importantly, himself. Not too many metaphors here, but we have a sensual juxtaposition between hash oil and cocoa butter which covers a wide swath of territory, and neatly sums up the mess he's in. Nice.
Twenty years later, we now have a very different "voice" - it seems to originate from the Cormac McCarthy school of writing, which shuns no metaphor as too extreme. I'm a fan of McCarthy - he takes wild risks with his prose, and I think he pulls it off. I also think McCarthy is McCarthy, and no-one should try his stunts at home, especially if (as in Nunn's case) you've already proven yourself to be more than competent at the basics.
In the Tijuana paragraph, the metaphors snap out like firecrackers (heh!). "Great tabernacle" might hold some symbolic water, what with the chest containing the heart and all, but the metaphor is ornate, a choice which clashes with the subject: an enormous thug who has proven himself to be less than clever, as evidenced finally by his fate in the bog. Consequently, "tabernacle" sounds alarm bells. The rest of the paragraph - "appendage...flayed" "scarred visage" "ghastly ritual" - lurches to a crescendo with all the subtlety of a wheezy circus organ. "Unctuous bubbles" I rather like for its percussive comic interruption. But then we get the capper, a gassy meditation on this lunk's eternal fate.
Why, you might reasonably ask, should I pick on Nunn, and why should he bother to care? He's secured cult status; guys like me make a point of buying whatever comes next, and guys who are considerably less prone to thinking about prosaic choices really dig his stuff. He's even got trade rags like Publisher's Weekly and Booklist singing his praises, and hipsters in the trenches of glossies like GQ eating out of the palm of his hand.
I parse because I care. To my mind, Nunn's writing has slipped by steady increments since Tapping. I'm clearly crazy for Tapping; I also loved Unassigned Territory's quixotic exploration of the connection between religious certainty and desperate debauchery; I thought Pomona Queen was funny, scary, and terribly sad. But with each successive title, Nunn has increasingly indulged in arcane "scenic meditations", which (as in the above scene) are either beside the point, or worse, inflate the significance of events that would otherwise have played as melodrama (as in The Dogs of Winter).
Nothing wrong with melodrama - it has a respectible lineage, and when it works, I cry. But even if Dogs' language had been pared down, this business of "death by surf".... I'm not a surfer; I clearly don't understand why this "tragic" ending holds appeal to surfers, but I guess it must, since documentaries, memoirs, and movies go back to it again and again. As a landlocked reader, it's disappointingly predictable (another reason why I liked Tapping - no death by surf scenes).
I'll conclude with a quick look at two of Nunn's overleaf promoters: Elmore Leonard ("Kem Nunn is one of a rare breed, a novelist who knows how to plot and tell a story. There is amazing energy here." - Tapping) and Robert Stone ("The all-time great surfing novel" - Tapping; "He has wrought a harrowing and moving story of unforgettable characters living, literally, on the edges." - Tijuana). Leonard's impramatur is polished up and used for every publication, as is. Stone's support is unwavering, and specific to each novel. Are they friends? Does Nunn consider Stone a contemporary? Whatever the case, I know a little bit about Stone's lifestyle, and suspect that, like Stone, Nunn is something of a "character".
On the other hand, everything I've seen on Leonard suggests the opposite. He has an understated charisma, people who meet him like him, but mostly he sits at the table and writes (with pen and paper). His risk-taking, such as it is, is reserved for topicality: Rwanda or Cuba might get lifted from the headlines and plonked into a book, but the research is solid (and attributed) and more importantly the characters are Leonard characters, resorting to the usual mixture of charm, cunning and lethal force to get to the book's conclusion. One thing Leonard never falls back on is writin'.
So here, then, from a guy with a heap of upublished paper in a drawer, is my modest proposal to Kem Nunn: a little more Leonard, and a little less Stone, please. There's no question the Stone-approach garnered spectacular work in your first three novels. I'm not saying reject it outright. I am saying, a little stretch in the other direction wouldn't hurt.