Friday’s Forgotten Books: Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

In 1991 a great pulpy action movie was released about an FBI agent named Johnny Utah, played by Keanu Reaves, who goes undercover to stop a seasonal string of bank robberies. It also stars Gary Busey and Turtle from North Shore is in it too. You see crusty old Busey (who is never crazy and always trustworthy) has a theory as to why the bank jobs are seasonal. (See where this is going yet?) He thinks that they are…surfers. The movie of course was Point Break. It’s one of those movies that you may not go out of your way to watch but when you do come across it you HAVE to finish watching it. Its pull is that great. Kathryn Bigelow may be getting a lot of acclaim for The Hurt Locker and she’s looking strong to make history on Oscar night but for some of us she will always be the director of Point Break.

So then, why am I writing about a 90′s B-movie actioner for a series titled Fridays Forgotten Books? Stay with me, I’ll explain.

In 1984 Kem Nunn published a novel called Tapping the Source. Tapping the Source would be the first in a loosely defined surf trilogy that Nunn would publish in the creation of his own sub-genre, surf noir. Parts of the history of this novel are notorious for all the wrong reasons. It seems that Hollywood was interested in Tapping the Source and the rights were bought. Over the years this project would change hands numerous times. It would be taken off the shelf and tinkered with only to be put back on the shelf again until the next round of interest. Then one day the deformed and practically altered beyond all recognition Tapping the Source project gained traction and was eventually filmed…as Point Break.

Alls well that ends well and Nunn’s book finally made it to the screen. Yay! Except the project had been in the pipeline for so long and had been changed so much that Nunn’s work was never credited as the inspiration for the film and Nunn apparently wasn’t paid anything. Hell the movie only has the faintest trace of the book. There is some speculation that a law suit was filed and some sort of deal was reached. I can’t say this for certain because there just isn’t a lot of on the record information in general about the Tapping the Source to Point Break debacle.

To this day most don’t realize that the book inspired the movie. It’s common place for reviews of one to reference the other and vice versa. I’ve seen a number of reviews of Tapping the Source that say something to the effect of “pretty good but too much like Point Break”.

This is sad really because Tapping the Source is one hell of a novel and Nunn is a great writer. Nunn isn’t the most prolific fella in the world with only 5 novels to his name after all these years but every few years one pops us. For me, often times, the best books sit at the intersection of great writing, great characters and a great story. Tapping the Source is right there in that sweet spot.

Nunn’s work is important for a couple of reasons. First he is that rare individual who was able to be his own genre. His work gave us a glimpse into a sub-culture that was far removed from The Beach Boys and Dick Dale and much closer to the Z-Boys. Nunn knew something that the rest of us didn’t and did his part to bring it to us and tied it in with the long history of great California novels. Second, Nunn’s dense writing style and labyrinthine sentence structure offer up another possibility to the transparent prose that dominates the crime genre.

“An old Mex meth chef even showed him the bones in the ground and he saw for the first time the enormity of what he had begun. He saw iniquities without end, as a procession of days, and to these he had added other and greater iniquities in which his father had played no part and of which he would not speak, neither then nor now, yet he knew himself for what he was, his father’s son, and he vowed to finish what he had started the night he’d gone to beat the truth out of the old man, if only to rid the planet of them both, for in this crime he had no concern with perfection.”

I think it’s also important to try and diplomatically address something else here when we talk about surf noir and surf crime fiction — the fiction of Don Winslow. I have nothing against Mr. Winslow and have enjoyed a number of his books over the years. But. When I read something like The Dawn Patrol I can’t help but hear the echoes of Kem Nunn. I’m not calling anyone out I’m just saying Nunn’s work is clearly an influence.

After Tapping the Source Nunn would write four more novels and spend time in Hollywood on projects like Wild Things, Deadwood and John from Cincinnati (which I secretly love even though it makes no sense). The bottom line is that he is a writer worth your time and his surf trilogy should be read by everyone and his name should be more well known.

This is Spinetingler’s first foray into the wild world of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books series, it won’t be the last.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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About Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

9 thoughts on “Friday’s Forgotten Books: Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

  1. And what a wonderful review it is. Thanks so much. I’ll be hoping for more. And I think Johnn from Cincinnati deserved more of a chance. Sometimes-it’s the second year that turns it into something.

  2. I love JfC. I don’t know what in the hell its about after watching it twice but I love it any way. The characters, the dialog, the interactions.

    But putting that to the side if you haven’t read Nunn then give him a try. Just a great, under appreciated writer.

  3. Point Break is not the movie that was being developed out of TAPPING THE SOURCE. It’s what people in the trade refer to as a “rip-off.”

    I know this because in the late 80s/early 90s I was slipped a copy of the screenplay for TTS by a friend and I hated it so much that I met with the producers attached to the project in the hopes of revising it and bringing it closer to the novel. TTS had come very close to being filmed with Ridley Scott directing and Sean Penn starring, but Penn and the producers had a last minute salary dispute and the project fell apart. It was currently in limbo. Scott jumped ship and went over to a project called JOHNNY UTAH which was similar enough to TAPPING THE SOURCE that lawsuits were threatened. Scott eventually dropped out of the project and Bigelow/Cameron came in and revised it again and POINT BREAK was born. I don’t believe there is any official through line between the two different projects. They were being developed by different studios as two different projects. (One just happened to have seemed “inspired” by the other.)

    If TAPPING THE SOURCE had been filmed as written it still would have been a big disappointment to those of us who loved the book. The script was not very good and it strayed from the book in ways that were just ridiculous. However, I was informed by the producers that the script was not the problem. Everyone LOVED the script. Maybe it’s just as well that they never got to film it.

    While there are similarities between TTS and PB, it’s a big stretch to imply that POINT BREAK is actually, officially a version of TAPPING THE SOURCE. There’s a reason why the novel isn’t credited as a source. It was never officially recognized as one. And a close reading of the book will leave anyone with the understanding that the only thing lifted from it was the surf setting and a bit of the relationship between the two leads. The plot is wildly different (as is the nature and background of the protagonist). And the book is deep while the movie surfs in the shallow end of the pool.

    I’m sorry to be so critical about this review, but I would have much rather have read more of your thoughts on the book itself instead of all this Hollywood speculation. I rarely ever post on the web, but I love TAPPING THE SOURCE so much that I felt I had to bring a different perspective to this tale lest anyone out there think it credible and start spreading the word that POINT BREAK is actually TAPPING THE SOURCE.

    TAPPING THE SOURCE is yet to be filmed.

  4. A couple of things:

    Hell, I hope that the connection DOES bring people to the book. The movie is a lot fun and a lot of people like it so why not draft off of the connection. I won’t ever tell people the two are the same because then I would be a fool but they are both good in their own ways. So if people read this and they think they want to try a Nunn novel then so be it.

    The 2006 Thunder’s Mouth Press edition of the book, the cover is in the review, has, prominently placed on the back cover “Inspiration for the movie Point Break”.

    To be fair I was aware that there was a connection before I saw this there but what makes it interesting is that it could be indicative of either a lawsuit or the threat of legal action. I also think that a parallel instance would be Pete Dexter’s book Deadwood and the HBO show Deadwood. Clearly there are enough similarities between them to name the connection.

    As I wander over to my shelf I see:

    Tapping the Source
    Unassigned Territory
    Pomona Queen
    The Dogs of Winter
    Tijuana Straits

    If there is a sixth Kem Nunn novel please tell me and I’ll order it right now. It would be like manna from heaven for this fan. There ARE however some unproduced scripts that are available on some sites. But these are clearly marked and aren’t novels.

    Every Friday we (meaning the mystery/crime community) talk about books that we think are forgotten but shouldn’t be. If you want to do a write up then please feel free. I’ll post it here.

  5. My bigger fear would be that people would think they know what TAPPING THE SOURCE is all about because so many people like to associate it with POINT BREAK in reviews. I also enjoyed POINT BREAK a lot, but I know lots of people who didn’t. I’d hate the idea that people might pass on reading TAPPING THE SOURCE for that reason. I think the association does a disservice to the novel. So if the two are going to be compared in a review it would be great if the reviewer could discuss the infinite differences between the two works as well as the similarities.

  6. And you’re right. He only has published five books. Guess I was still seeing double when I looked over at my bookshelf this morning (I’ve got all his galleys as well as the hardcovers, so it’s crowded over there). Or maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part.

  7. It’s seems odd that Thunder Mouth Press would put that tagline on the back of the book, but I guess that shows how desperate publishers are to sell books nowadays. However, I wouldn’t take that as an official legal notice.

    It’s funny, when POINT BREAK came out I really liked it, in spite of the fact that I felt it ripped off Kem’s book and it really harmed the chances of TAPPING THE SOURCE from being filmed properly (if that is possible). But my more literary minded friends HATED that movie and took me for a Philistine for liking it. I think the movie has grown on people over the years.

    But it’s still no TAPPING THE SOURCE.

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