As seen on The Rumpus:
I started reading Doug Dorst’s story collection Sunday, July 4th, as fireworks, invisible from my bedroom’s window, broke the night’s silence. Sweating through a s’more-stained tee shirt, I read The Surf Guru’s first three stories.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of the New
The title story is structurally interesting (mimicked, for better or worse, by this blog post), each passage written under a heading like “The Surf Guru’s wife, cinematically,” “Bobby Cordero is molting,” “His business,” and “Fear (the largest eyes of all).” The story’s curious appearance was a very inviting introduction to the collection. It signaled that Dorst was a writer not afraid to experiment with form. The most exciting part about a story that is formally inventive is that the reader is asked to find meaning not only in the story itself, but in its structure, in the way in which the author chose to share his story with you.
The headings gave the story a sharp, quick pace, making each section seem no longer than the length of time between the swell and break of a Pacific Ocean wave.
Summary, Part I
“The Surf Guru” is about a former champion-surfer, now grown old, who sips Chianti from his beachfront back porch, watching the new crop of young surfers take on his old waters. All but one of these surfers wear his company’s (“GOO-ROO”) surf gear. The rebel surfer, only known as “the red-haired boy,” still manages to be a good surfer, maybe even better than the homogenized rest. The Guru sits transfixed as the red-haired boy surfs and as he woos a girl on the beach. The Guru’s wife, we learn, (“cinematically”) abandoned him, citing lovelessness and the Guru’s “turgid”-ity as reasons for her leaving. He and his ex-wife met spontaneously on a beach. The red-haired boy, then, the Guru’s antithesis, replicates, unconsciously, the Guru of younger days.
The Guru is presumably old (who’s heard of a young Guru?) and is only a spectator to beach life, no longer a star. Whatever power surfing once held for the title character is denied him now. Before Bobby Cordero, a surfer, is killed in a shark attack, Dorst writes:
The wind is up and the waves are big. Bobby needs to clear his head, and this is the way to do it. He rides double overheads for an hour and feels his spirit rise up and dance a rumba with the sea. He is oblivious to his hangover, to the rent he can’t pay, to all those accusations of squandered potential, to the girl who won’t return his calls.
Surfing for Bobby, and, likely, the Guru, is/was a release from the boredom of everyday existence. It is a thoroughly unusual activity designed to increase endorphin production, and sharpen your focus to the task at hand. Bobby Cordero blocks everything out of his mind when he surfs out of necessity. One mis-step, one lapse in judgment, and he’s done for. In middle-old age, the Guru is confined only to observe the catharsis granted others as they ride out the ocean, never feeling it for himself. A piece of himself is down there, his company’s decal on a wetsuit, but he remains distant.
Oddly, near the end of the story, it’s revealed that he has great respect and gratitude for the red-haired boy. The red-haired boy, too, has great respect for the Guru (“See that guy? Dude controls the tides”). This Zen-like relationship, mutual peace in mutual difference, works in the context of a story, literally, about surfing, which can be interpreted as a very transcendent, mystically-charged activity.
Having your cake and not eating it
The collection’s second story, “Dinaburg’s Cake,” follows a dysfunctional family, headed by a baker mother, not unlike Little Miss Sunshine‘s Hoovers. The story’s conclusion, especially, with its playfulness and uncharacteristically goofy character turns, reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine‘s climactic dance and escape scene.
Summary, Part II
Kacy, an Austin baker, develops an attraction to a charming potential customer, looking to buy a cake for his daughter’s wedding. When he informs her that her services are no longer needed, her infatuation only grows stronger. She entertains thoughts of an affair, calls him, dreams about him, and, most entertainingly, feels drawn to look upon, and taste, the cake that he chose over hers.
It is a formally conventional story, told realistically, with equal amounts of humor and pathos. April, Kacy’s hair-pulling (literally) teenage daughter, is a great character, easily memorable for her defining trait, who spends most of the story being described through the lens of her mother. Through this lens, surprisingly, love rarely passes. Instead, Kacy tries to concoct ways to fix her freak daughter. At story’s end, though, I started to think that, save the hair-pulling, there might not have been all that much unusual, or freak-ish about April, that maybe she wasn’t given a fair chance by her mother, a woman looking always to change her family (freak daughter, doltish husband, and easily-excitable young son), as she sees fit, blind to her own faults (passive-aggressiveness, self-, familial-shame, and her own hair-pulling-like tic; teeth grinding).
Forgiveness like limes
The third story, “La Fiesta de San Humberto el Menor,” was the most fun story to read. It had the most engaging action, and its characters were richly drawn. It addressed moral, personal, and existential concerns with great seriousness and, again, humor. The story had a very classic feel, almost medieval or folkloric, but it dealt with issues entirely relevant to today’s world.
Summary, Part III (abridged)
A fruit-stand owner in a small, religious Spanish village makes (partial) amends with the remains of his broken family. A notorious bandit is given a public execution. It’s a story about forgiveness, about trying to be the bigger man, however small you actually stay. It’s a story about the acceptance of things as they are and will continue always to be, however unfair or harshly cruel. It is, like the two previous stories in the collection, about growing older, and finding relief from the sadness that comes with that reality.
Thin brush, small canvas
Maybe it’s just that I don’t read enough short story collections, but I don’t think of the short story form as particularly valuable for writers looking to write memorable characters. Good writers can, and often do (James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues; Lorrie Moore, People Like That Are The Only People Here; Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes), but most of the characters that lodge themselves in the memories of their readers (Holden Caulfield, Gatsby, Harry Potter) are given an entire novel’s, or series, worth of attention and development. Dorst, though, even in the very short (15 pages, with much white space) title story, writes, vividly, characters who are memorable because of how gorgeously their feelings, motivations, and yearnings are articulated, sometimes even simply hinted at (see: The mostly-discreet Surf Guru himself), to the reader. He does this while also taking advantage of the short form’s necessity for economical storytelling. Writing on a small scale, Dorst writes finely, seemingly starting with his story’s well-formed characters, then building obstacles for them to spend their time on the page attempting to overcome.
Let freedom ring
I hope some of the collection’s remaining nine stories are written more in the vein of “The Surf Guru,” with its formal creativity. If they are written with more realism, as in “Dinaburg’s Cake,” I’ll trust that Dorst will at least populate his story with interesting characters, complete with their own interesting obstacles, and failings, and dreams.
Continuing on in my reading, I’m finding more and more enjoyment in The Surf Guru. This week I’ll give my thoughts on the five stories that follow “La Fiesta de San Humberto el Manor,” (“Vikings” – “Splitters”) one of which I highlight as the collection’s finest piece.
After “La Fiesta…” comes “Vikings,” a story about two twenty-somethings journeying, as twenty-somethings are wont to journey, north towards Alaska, fleeing authorities, the memory of girlfriends past, and, as is suggested by the story’s chilling final paragraph, any semblance of what once could be called home. The story revolves, loosely, around an abandoned baby, a gay, balding billiards player, and a lascivious, middle-aged, redheaded bar-hopper.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of “Vikings” is full. This story felt full. It gives backstory to its characters, as well as context for where their lives are heading, and, in some cases, ending. The main character’s friendship is oddly tender and rendered unsentimentally. There’s a moment where one emotionally and physically defends the other, but it doesn’t feel hackneyed, maybe because the friend doing the defending (Trace) is under the influence of some serious methamphetamine. The defense, then, can be attributed to his altered, unreasonable state of mind. Or, if you like, Trace’s defense while under the influence shows that his platonic love for Phil transcends the dense haze that obscures reality immediately after drug use.
I’d gladly follow Trace and Phil for their entire trip north, in a novel perhaps. Or a film. Is it just me or does Dorst seem to write with a screenwriter’s ear for dialogue and eye for description? His writing can, at times, be very literary, structurally and prosaically (as evidenced in the next story), but in general his sentences and paragraphs have all the vividness, to me, of a good movie scene or short film.
Following “Vikings” is “Jumping Jacks,” which, at three pages, is more like a song than a story. And what a song! Every sentence has all the energy (and then some) of the 4th of July fireworks that were lit in “Vikings” (sharp “like cracks of the bat, a roll on a snare drum, popcorn popping”). Bombs over Baghdad “pippitypop” and “batterclang.” Ignited jumping jacks act like firecrackers, “spray[ing] spark trails of red and purple and gold and blue as they sizzle and wheel and whirl and spit and squeal.” Four lines are given to poetic variations of the phrase “fucked up.” Even better, the story being told, so well, is so good.
It’s a childhood memory of an unwise decision quickly made, brought to the narrator’s mind as he watches America announce, loudly, unwisely, its Second Gulf War, on television. In the memory, the narrator is in the same position: spectator. He watches as his friend, Bunk (see: Bush), sets fire to six acres of forest, using alarmingly explosive jumping jacks. “Let it burn” Bunk says, deadly serious, suddenly determined that the land’s destruction is acceptable, showing no regard for anyone but himself and his newfound appreciation for ruin. The narrator runs home, having tried and failed to stamp out the fires. Years later, as he sits at home, watching fires of far greater magnitude, fires beyond his or any one person’s control, started by bigger kids, this memory, like a match, flares and fizzles out in the front of his mind. He sits in its smoke. In my opinion, “Jumping Jacks” is this collection’s masterpiece. If it didn’t make an impression on you, try reading it again, out loud.
The next story has Dorst playing, again, with form. 12 headings signal 12 scenes featuring the title character, Dr. Gachet. Each heading marks a different “portrait” of the doctor, an apt term given that both the doctor and the live-in artist who he is treating, are painters.
The story takes place in Paris, a location that sticks out like a sore thumb in the collection as a whole. Its setting works, though, and only adds to the romantic mood of the story. There is no personal romance (though one is thinly hinted at), but instead a romanticism of art, specifically painting, and its power. Dr. Gachet, a doctor of “uncertain health,” nurses a manic-depressive artist who creates works that, according to the doctor, make the world “more beautiful, more bearable.” The story juxtaposes the joy that art is capable of producing with the sorrow often felt by its creator during production.
It’s a thoughtful examination of the “tragic artist” figure, with the added element of giving equal (perhaps more) attention to the person trying to cure (however half-heartedly) the artist of his melancholy. Dr. Gachet assures the artist that melancholy “most inevitably… afflicts the great artists,” suggesting that melancholy, in its unexplainable way, can lead to the production of great art. Gachet’s (and so, Dorst’s) idea is persuasive. Do we not value the “mad geniuses”? Is there not often a creative impulse in the face of great sadness?
Two other focuses in this story: time’s passage and identity. Like every story before it, Dorst shows a key interest in the passage of time. It is not a knock against the collection to say that little in it feels immediate; everything feels weighted and tested by time, actions from the past, and concerns for the future. Time’s passage is represented, concretely, here by timestamps in each “portrait” heading.
Dr. Gachet has identity issues. He is an artist, but he’s a copycat artist, incapable of satisfyingly painting an original creation. Even his self-portrait is a replica of a portrait. He struggles with how he wants to sign his paintings, how he wants himself, on a very elemental level, to be known. The story’s ending also suggests that, even in his final days, the doctor cannot ever be happy with himself (unless in the presence of art, that is), concerned more with famous painter Toulouse-Lautrec’s “growth” than he ever, apparently, has been with his own. Is Gachet’s selflessness, his magnanimous “Dr.” mentality, noble or naïve? A personal strength or weakness?
“The Monkeys Howl, the Hagfish Feast” is about masculinity and the extreme lengths to which people are driven for love. It’s about love during wartime, love-as-reason-for wartime, in fact. It follows a rebel army on their way to a nameless Queen’s castle. Three rebels are given close focus in the story: the lovesick general, a sociopathic lieutenant, and a nameless “kid” prone to diddling with himself in the dead of night.
These three characters display three separate models of masculinity. In solitude, the general acknowledges his plentiful physical shortcomings: a belly that “lolls over the waistband of his shorts,” tics and twitches, a false nose. These blemishes probably don’t go unnoticed by the soldiers under his command, but the general will never publicly address them, for he barely addresses them in private. It is not like a man, particularly a man of power, to face such failings with sincerity. Men of power do not afford themselves the right to focus, seriously, on their misgivings, be they physical (see: above) or emotional (an unreasonable and costly love).
Alvaro, the lieutenant, is machismo personified. In my mind’s film adaptation, he is played by a swarthy, Spanish Sylvester Stallone imitation. He is a Spike TV man.
The Kid, however, bears the heart of a lover. A horny lover, to be sure, but a young lover, never loved, never a stealer of “secret kiss[es],”appreciative of female beauty for its sexual and aesthetic value. The sight of the girls at the end of the story may “stiffen” him, but their beauty also lightens his steps, and inspires in him high hope that he will live to see more beauty yet.
The story’s interpretive ending is made all the more effective because it allows the reader to create the fate of the story’s only admirable and sympathetic character.
The next story, “Splitters,” completely satisfied my longing for experimentation. Photographs! Footnotes! In Dorst’s words (here) the story is about a “misanthropic botanist.” It takes the form of an edited and annotated “lost manuscript” of deceased (fictional) plant taxonomist, H.A. Quilcock. Quilcock’s manuscript, a series of scathing profiles of his contemporaries, is, in short, hilarious, and his frequent use of the (actual) word “lickspittle” had me cracking up. I don’t know what to say of the story except that it was a joy to read. Probably the collection’s most entertaining and enjoyable story thus far.
The Surf Guru is simply, and rather consistently, great. It’s a story collection I’d gladly recommend to anyone, without hesitation. I finished the book in one long stretch. Here are my impressions of the book’s concluding four stories.
In my first set of notes I noted that Dorst repeatedly wrote stories that concerned aging and the fear of maturation. This interest is again revealed on the second page of “The Candidate in Bloom.” Describing the titular candidate, Dorst writes, “He plays well among registered voters who self-identify as seeking that which cannot be reclaimed.” Besides being a nicely-constructed line, this sentence articulates the entire collection’s fixation with longing, for both that which can and cannot be “reclaimed.”
I liked “The Candidate in Bloom,” (which can be read here at The Rumpus) but I found it to be one of the collection’s weakest stories. It’s about an imbecilic candidate and his female campaign coordinator, and how behind even idiotic men there’s a good woman. I guess my main problem with the story is the exaggerated sense of danger that looms over everything the candidate says and does. It felt, yes, exaggerated, but moreover, unnecessary and mishandled.
At work in the story are two dangers: the potential physical danger the candidate puts himself in by electing himself to represent a group of people who he may or may not accurately, or fairly, or competently represent, and the political danger that his coordinator, Renata, sees in the candidate’s self-presentation, and image, and incompetence. Neither one of these creates any serious tension, though, because there are traces of unfitting, almost jarring humor.
There is also, I feel, not enough time spent on the characters. It’s like the old saying, “Show a gun in the first act, it’ll be fired in the third,” except that we spend the entire story, first act through last, staring only at the gun. Perhaps I’ll revisit “The Candidate in Bloom” in the future, but as it stands it is one of my least favorite stories from The Surf Guru.
The next story, “What Is Mine Will Know My Face,” brings back best friends Trace and Phil (from “Vikings”), and further introduces and develops Mo, Trace’s ex-girlfriend in “Vikings” and still-girlfriend in “What Is Mine,” which is set before the events of “Vikings.” In “What Is Mine,” Phil has to confront Mo about her infidelity, which he learned about at his job, as a deliverer of carnations for Smiley’s Florists. When Phil recognizes Mo’s name and address on a new delivery, he eases open the attached message and learns that Mo’s love for Trace has been dishonest, that the flowers are from a man who isn’t Trace.
“What Is Mine Will Know My Face” has real life. Take, for example, this paragraph from early in the story, as Phil drives Trace to the hospital for an operation on his recently kicked-in eye:
The van bumped over frost heaves left by the hard winter. We drove past the high school we’d gone to – I’d graduated, he’d been kicked out – and we drove through the double-S turn that killed our friend Crockett while Trace and I were passed out in his backseat. We drove past the golf course where we’d both gotten laid for the first time, up on the thirteenth green, which on clear nights had a view of Manhattan. We drove past the house my parents had to sell when they split up for the first time, and past a marsh where Trace and I had rescued an injured heron when we were little. It was strange, I thought, how much of our lives you could see from this one road.
So much life in that paragraph! Dorst’s characters and city and road (!) practically breathe in this excerpt and throughout the rest of the story. Perhaps I feel this way because I deeply connect with Phil, the narrator of “What Is Mine.” He feels as real as parts of myself feel.
Trace has a line in “What Is Mine” about how Phil, unlike Trace, is probably better off alone. And he may be right. Phil enjoys his solitude, his quiet walks downtown. I also think he must enjoy, at some level, taking on Trace’s emotional burdens as his own. He suffers, and loves, vicariously, with Trace. This is why he has remained friends with him, despite their many character differences. This is why, as the reader knows, Phil is bound to be led across the country by and with Trace in “Vikings.” But there’s always a longing for a personal connection that’s solely yours, and that longing is gracefully written about in his scene with Mo, as well as in the scene where he attempts, unsuccessfully, to get information about a customer at Smiley’s. In said attempt, Phil is foiled by a run-in with two characters, his boss and ex-wife, the owner of a competing floristry, that we were trained to believe hated one other. In that scene, they’re making love. Disappointment fills Phil. My best friend has love, he thinks, and even these two, who despise each other, share love, yet I don’t, I can’t. At story’s end, very little “knows his face,” for very little belongs to him.
I did not like “Little Reptiles.” I almost want to leave it at that, but that’s not fair. There have been complaints in the discussion group on Google of “overwrought-ness” in The Surf Guru’s writing. I did not agree with this criticism until “Little Reptiles.” It just did not vibrate with me. Dorst’s sentences, for the first time, felt as if they were trying to impress me.
Writing is never effortless, but good writing can often produce the illusion that it is. Every story in this collection, besides “Little Reptiles,” presents, to me, that illusion that good writers write well without even trying, that their talent for sentence- and story-construction is boundless and uncomplicated. “Little Reptiles,” then, is a rare miss in an otherwise wholly enjoyable collection.
“Astronauts,” The Surf Guru’s final story, follows Jo, arguably the collection’s biggest fuck-up, as she experiences fourteen pages of intense failure, and one sentence of hope.
In a book filled with stories that end with resolutions both easy (the cake-eating scene in “Dinaburg’s Cake,” the father-daughter moment in “La Fiesta”) and hard (Phil’s emptiness at the end of “What Is Mine,” the Candidate’s assassination), the ending of “Astronauts” is something of an anomaly. It is equal amounts promise and hopelessness, consolatory and discomforting.
Towards the end there’s a hokey intervention of sorts, for Jo, the message of which, however uninformed, goes completely ignored. Jo charts her own path from story’s start to finish, for better or (more likely) worse. Hers is a life perpetually spiraling downward, I believe, but one which she is always in reasonable control of. It is not an elegant fall, but one that Jo could probably right, if she thinks her life and her decisions and her personal relationships through. She is, throughout, a disaffected character, wanting both grounded-ness (the tractor-trailer driver’s license, the open road) and ethereality (flotation, like that of the inflatable pool chair, or an astronaut; the erraticism, the excitement and unpredictability of weightlessness).
As noted by Kevin Thomas in the Google group discussion, “Astronauts,” like several stories in the collection, has great pacing, “velocity” to quote Kevin, compelling the reader to finish it in one enjoyable gulp.