In Kem Nunn’s first novel, Tapping the Source (1984), Huntington Beach is a greasy smear on the California seacoast. Surrounded by oil wells, this Eden-gone-wrong is swarmed by clueless runaways and the dissembling swamis who wait at their webs like patient spiders, knowing that sooner than later one of them will make the wrong choice and stumble in. This book begins as a noir quest and a whodunit for the main character, but finishes for him as a jaded who-cares-whodunit.
The backwater town of San Arco in Southern California’s arid interior is an area so barren and rustic that only the director of a Spaghetti Western could love it. Anyone with a working thumb would gladly flee, but Ike Tucker, a local hick barely out of his teens, discovers that that isn’t enough to aid a successful escape: you must also master the ignorance and inexperience inbred from a hardscrabble upbringing. Fear of and unfamiliarity with the outside world is what keeps most people trapped in San Arco, but Ike Tucker is on a mission.
Like his mother had earlier, Ike’s older sister, Ellen, left home in search of something better--and never looked back. Now, after two years of wondering, there’s finally word of Ellen. A young stranger in a Camaro with two surfboards tied to the top pulls into Ike’s uncle’s service station with the names of some players who might know Ellen’s fate. Ike realizes that he must put his inhibitions and insecurities behind in order to track her down. He dives into the strange new surfer/punk/biker scene of Huntington Beach and comes up bewildered and gasping. More hayseed than Sherlock Holmes, Ike begins his search for the three names in a phone book and quickly realizes that his crude methods are inadequate for the task. He knows he has to think smart and hopes that Ellen has been a little more sensible, and that her naiveté hasn’t precipitated her doom.
In his dingy motel room, with the town humming with action, Ike also sees how easy it would be to leave San Arco and never return, just as his mother had done. And in a huge leap he forgives her for her actions, a step that moves Ike from his old self to the beginnings of a new person.
... [H]e guessed he could see now, in the darkness of this room, with this new place throbbing around him, how going back could be like dying. It was the first time he had seen it that way; and from that angle, the betrayal was somehow not so huge.Ike soon discovers that Huntington Beach is no Beach Boy idyll by the sea and that fun, fun, fun is usually desultory sex with young runaways, doing drugs with whoever has them, and fistfights between surfers jockeying for waves. The three people Ike is in search of--Hound Adams, Frank Baker, and Terry Jacobs--are surfers. They’re also badasses with a capital B and are not to be trifled with. Shaking the hillbilly dust from his clothes, Ike sees that a straight-ahead Q & A will most likely result in a confrontation and slammed doors, so he decides to become one of them. Ike begins to tap the source.
He buys a board and begins to teach himself how to surf. Lucky for him, his motorcycle mechanic skills connect him with Preston Marsh, a former up-and-coming surf star and local legend who’s now an alcoholic lost in his own neighborhood. Preston takes an interest after Ike repairs his Harley-Davidson; but when Ike tells him the reason why he’s in Huntington Beach, Preston warns him away from Hound Adams. Ike isn’t easily swayed and he’s found that he enjoys surfing. The mental exhilaration and the vague spiritual and consciousness awakening it has inspired keeps him at it. Ike is becoming a citizen of Huntington Beach, taking part in its activities, and coming into contact with residents who share his interests.
It was an incredible moment and he felt suddenly that he was plugged into all, was part of it in some organic way. The feeling created an awareness of a new set of possibilities, a new rhythm. He wanted to laugh, or to shout.Enlightenment, however, works two ways. It turns out that Preston and Hound were once best friends and business partners with nothing but upside when they were young surfers. The two fell out after the death of Hound’s sister, Janet, resulting in Preston dropping out and serving two hitches in Vietnam, while Hound turned to the dark side, becoming a drug dealer and the go-to guru for young runaways in search of gratification and approval.
The evil of which Hound Adams is capable and the mystery of Ellen Tucker come closer to the surface when Preston takes Ike on a surfing trip to a deserted ranch up the coast. After several days of solitude and surfing there, Preston is attacked by Terry Jacobs. Ike subdues Jacobs with a blow to the head and the two escape, starting a chain of violence and payback that ends in death and dismemberment. All the while Hound Adams is just off-stage, watching the action and manipulating the actors to come his way.
Hound is a smooth operator. He can talk fast and turn any conversation or situation into a mystical and nebulous moment of wisdom. The vapid teens he surrounds himself with feel special and take his words as acceptance into a world larger than themselves. Ike and his girlfriend Michelle begin to fall under Hound’s spell, and Hound is soon able to sidetrack Ike from his search for Ellen by lulling him into becoming his henchman, someone who lures young runaway girls to his pad for sex, drugs, and amateur porn-making parties. For the insecure shit-kicker he once was, Ike discovers pimping and partying to be quite a rush and a new source of excitement beyond surfing.
It was like finding some new power suddenly at one’s disposal. It was strange. One minute he felt incredibly guilty and the next he felt this crazy elation.Ike begins to piece together the deadly finale Hound and drug-dealing partner Milo Trax have planned for him and Michelle at Trax’s ranch, which happens to be the same place where he and Preston surfed. Ike knows something bad is afoot, but only when he recognizes a piece of Ellen’s jewelry that Michelle says Trax had given her does he recognize how serious the situation is. Strung along by Hound since the beginning, Ike must bolt before he and Michelle are made to disappear as well--but not before Preston Marsh makes one last well-timed appearance in Ike Tucker’s life.
The opportunities Nunn has in Tapping the Source to overreach and wax poetic about good and evil or the intangible qualities of surfing are abundant, but the author doesn’t allow metaphysical jive to get in the way of this action-heavy plot. Nunn’s style is noirish--that is, ironic, moody, tight-lipped, and controlled, even in moments of elation. Nunn keeps a very firm hand on precise plotting and storytelling in a book where there are no loose ends or implausible plot twists.
READ MORE: “Surf Noir: Get on Board,” by Denise Hamilton
(The Rap Sheet).