Monday, April 28, 2014

"Tijuana Straits," by Kem Nunn

Rolling the North American Free Trade Agreement, the resulting industrial pollution, surfing, a working-class California beach town, the vagaries and terrors of the U.S.- Mexico border into literature takes some doing, but “Tijuana Straits” does it well.

Kem Nunn's thriller depicts an obscure corner of the country and fashions a novel example of “Surf Noir,” never leaning too much on that one aspect, but mixing them all just right so that “Straits” is one story about a number of different things.

The story unfolds (unravels?) in the Tijuana River Valley lying between the southernmost city in California, Imperial Beach, and the neighboring Mexican city for which it is named.

“...the valley beyond her window, as a great repository of bones and dreams as one was likely to find, and above which a flock of shorebirds broke suddenly from beaches beyond her sight.”

It's about a washed-up waterman named Fahey whose legend was earned surfing Tijuana Straits under the tutelage of an elusive and sainted sensei, Hoddy Younger.

“Goat Canyon, Smuggler's Gulch, Spooner's Mesa...He showed him how to find these landmarks from the water and how to line them up with the old Tijuana lighthouse at the edge of the bullring so that he could wait for the waves in the spots from which he would be able to catch and ride them.”

Mired in grim mid-life, Fahey runs a floundering worm farm in Imperial Beach, of which he says, “This is the end of the line, the only beachtown in California no one wants, where the sewage meets the sea.”

Along with the toxic brew that flows via the Tijuana River into the valley, polluting the estuary and chasing surfers from the beach break, locals like Fahey are at the forefront of the human wave surging at the base of the high-tech walls built to keep them out of the U.S.

Still they come: “And so you would see them, scarecrows with frightened eyes loitering in the shadows of the fence, along the cement walls of the flood control channel, at the bottom of every gully, clear to Las Playa, where they huddled amid the reek of excrement in the shadow of the bullring at the edge of the old people's park, fingering rosaries and counting out their luck.”

Fahey lives with these darknesses seeping up from the south in his own way: “He did not ask to hear the man's story or to what end he might have come, then or at any other time, and would in fact go to his own grave without knowing it, for by his own measure the world was composed of sad stories and he saw no reason to learn another.”

Until he runs into Magdalena, an outcast of a different type, given over to saving the world, or some very small part of it. An orphan and product of convent life, for her, “The hereafter would be what it would be. The struggle itself was the act by which one gave meaning to the world.”

They collide on a dark windy beach at the border fence one evening and her perils become his, and the story is about how Fahey rebuilds himself in order to help she who has broken the terminal nature of his loneliness and decline.