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.