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The Dogs of Winter Paperback – March 1, 1998
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Kem Nunn's earlier surfing novel Tapping the Source was nominated for an American Book Award. In The Dogs of Winter, he draws again on the eternal legends and tall tales of surfers. Jack Fletcher is a pill-popping photographer on the skids who lucks into the assignment of photographing the aging surfing legend Drew Harmon and two young pros at the Heart Attacks in Northern California--an appropriately difficult-to-reach and shark-infested "mysto spot" reputed to have 30-foot waves. Not all dangers lurk in the ocean, however. The local Indians are unfriendly to outsiders and to each other; Harmon's young wife is obsessed with Indian witchcraft and a murdered local girl; and Harmon cloaks his own demons in laconic surfer-deity mystique. The hapless Fletcher and a local tribal council worker named Travis McCade desperately try to avert the curl of disaster that builds and breaks in this heavily atmospheric novel. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
"Surfers loved their stories. Big waves and outlaws. Eccentrics who had managed somehow to beat the system, to stay in the life when others moved inland and paid taxes." No one knows this better than Nunn (Pomona Queen), who, after 13 years, returns to the California surfing setting of his acclaimed first novel, Tapping the Source. Despite recent screw-ups, past-his-prime surfing photographer Fletcher is hired by a glossy surfing magazine to shoot aging master Drew Harmon and a couple of hot-shot tyros at a legendary Northern California beach dubbed Heart Attacks. The assignment is a bonehead idea from the start. Harmon?a semi-recluse who lives on an Indian reservation and pitched the photo shoot for unknown reasons?has no idea where Heart Attacks actually is. He's not entirely sane, in fact, and neither is his wife, a working witch. Also, the residents of the reservation are eager for confrontation, and murderously outsized cold-water waves (known to surfers as "dogs of winter") pound the shoreline. The novel begins to build a head of steam as an examination of how outsiders can wreak havoc on a small community. The tone changes dramatically when the surfers hit the road and are hunted by a band of Native Americans who've burnt down Harmon's home and kidnapped his wife. But this is no chase-the-gun-down thriller, and before you can say, "endless summer," the plot veers off in an even more sinister direction. Chapters alternate in perspective between those of Fletcher, Harmon's wife and a mixed-race official from the tribal council who bears the unlikely name of Travis McCade. It's hard to understand McCade's purpose in the novel since, structurally speaking, all he does is provide a sane foil for Harmon and fall for the man's wife. Fletcher serves the same functions, and more naturally. Even so, the story rides high, sped by prose as crisp as a breaking wave, as Nunn, a skilled author, once again writes deeply about a subject he knows and loves. Paperback rights to Washington Square Press; author tour.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The Dogs of Winter concerns the latter incorporating the surf culture element that Nunn uses so effectively. Add to that the mystery of the northern California coast and a place there thought to exist only in surfing myth, isolated tribes of native Americans who inhabit that coast and who are none to fond of white outsiders, a surfing legend who claims the myth is true, his young and beautiful, if possibly borderline, wife and other odd and eccentric characters and you have an entertaining stew.
Nunn likes his mysticism and it can get a little syncretistically garbled. It can be tough to know if it is all supposed to be
"one"- surf mysticism, native American mysticism, wiccan mysticism, personal journeys, nature - or if it is intended as a reflection of how isolated we are in our own minds and how lost in individual, cultural or group belief systems humans find themselves so that he is preaching a kind of objective nihilism. Still, as with his use of his protagonists, it is very well done if the goal is engrossing and entertaining fiction. Don't expect great questions to be answered in the end but it feels, when one is in the midst of one of his stories, that such an answer might just be on the next page.
"The Dogs of Winter" finds broken down surf photographer Jack Fletcher hooked on booze and pills and living in a ratty hole in Huntington Beach, California. He is divorced, estranged from his daughter, and by his own admission is "no longer cool." He then gets a fateful call from the publisher of a surfing magazine. He is asked to take pictures of a legendary "mysto" surf spot in Northern California that has never been photographed. The spot is named Heart Attacks, near the Devil's Hoof on the westernmost point of land in California. The man making the request is legendary surfer Drew Harmon, who mysteriously dropped out of the surfing scene years ago and disappeared somewhere near the Oregon border.
Jack heads north, picking up two young hot shot surfers on the way for the shoot. When they arrive they find Drew Harmon and his strange wife Kendra living in a trailer formerly inhabited by a young woman who was murdered there. Kendra suspects Drew of having committed the murder, and gradually takes on the murdered girl's appearance, wearing the clothes she left behind and even cutting her hair to look like her in a photograph left behind. The trailer is surrounded by heavy, rainy woods near Native American land, and the locals are none too friendly to outsiders. Nevertheless, Kendra walks the river and coast at night, communing with the spirit of the dead girl.
The first photo shoot at a local spot near the mouth of the river goes bad. The Native American boy hired to take Jack in his boat to get pictures of the huge wave is killed when the motor dies and they swamp. The locals find out, come after the party with guns, and things get nasty.
Drew Harmon refuses to let the dream of Heart Attacks die, however, and he leaves his wife behind in the turmoil to get the magazine shot Jack came for. They climb through the lonely, windswept coastline for days to find the legendary spot, with armed locals in pursuit.
The "Dogs of Winter" is a dark, mysterious, compelling read. It does have flaws. We just get the bare bones of why Kendra is with Drew in the first place. The characters do a lot of trail hiking, up and down the cliffs, back and forth, down and up, etc. that gets a bit tedious. The story as a whole is a bit uneven, but the whole mood of the thing, the "noir" so to speak, holds it all together and keeps it moving. Author Nunn brings the heart and soul of surfing to his work, and if you are not a surfer before reading his books, you will wish you were. I found myself sorry that the book had to end, and have already bought "Tijuana Straits" to continue the search for the last secret surfing spot.
Interesting Info: Nunn completed his first novel "Tapping the Source" (1984) while being mentored by Oakley Hall, author of the cult western "Warlock," and completed his surf trilogy with his 2004 novel "Tijuana Straits." He also worked on the HBO western series "Deadwood" in 2006, wrote for season 5 of "Sons of Anarchy," and co-created the HBO surfing drama "John From Cincinnati," which premiered in 2007.
Maybe you'll get a chance to enjoy this fine book!
That the feeling of parts of Northern California were captured perfectly. You could easily envision the light and the coast
From the authors description. Embracing your end doing the thing you love because life has lost meaning is brave
And stark but I struggled with understanding what brought all of the characters to where they landed. It is worth reading but may leave you strangely unsatisfied.