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The Resurrection of Kem Nunn

His first book, 'Tapping the Source,' is a classic of the southern california surfer subculture. now he's back in familiar territory. can he move from cult to california classic?

March 09, 1997|FRANK CLIFFORD | Frank Clifford is a Times environmental writer

Kem Nunn is driving too fast along a winding, fog-laced stretch of Highway 1 somewhere north of Trinidad. We are looking for a place called "Heart Attacks," which is not hard to picture loomimg around the next bend on this rain-slick road between roiling sea and overhanging cliffs. Heart Attacks is the elusive destination of Nunn's fourth novel, "The Dogs of Winter," which Scribner's published in February. Heart Attacks is not so much a spot on the map as it is defined by the coordinates of Nunn's imagination. Also known in the book as Humaliwu, a Native American word meaning "the place where legends die," it is where Yurok water demons hang out and where the white man's testosterone explodes into thin air like a wave through a blowhole. * Here, amid the stench of whale carrion and deer carcasses draped in seaweed, Nunn's modern-day heroes--a couple of middle-aged pilgrims searching for something they lost long ago--come a cropper amid the monster waves and the equally monstrous creatures who dwell on both sides of the mean high tide line. * Kem Nunn is the author of "Tapping the Source," a 1984 novel about surfers that came and went like a crackling summer storm, marking the sensory memory in the way certain weather or music can. For people who lived the Southern California beach life and many who did not, the book conjured up the perilous playground of youth. "Tapping the Source" was not a bestseller. But it acquired a cult--surf shops were named after it--and a strong critical reception with its nomination for an American Book Award. It created a heavy burden of expectation that Nunn was not able to fulfill until, perhaps, now. * With "The Dogs of Winter," Nunn has come back to the ocean that inspired his first novel. His story is again about surfers, but this time they are adults and the place is Northern California, in druidical headlands somewhere above Klamath "where the wilderness meets the sea." Nunn is working on a larger canvas than he has in the past. Grand and hoary, at times malevolent, nature unfolds much as it does in the Old Testament. And there is more than a whiff of the primitive about Nunn's characters, spiritual descendants of the hunters and adventurers whose destructive charisma has always held society in thrall.

"Surfers love big waves and outlaws," says the narrator of Nunn's new novel.

Nunn himself is a lifelong surfer, but it would be a stretch to cast him as one. Forty nine years old, balding and bearded, there is a lot more Grant Wood than David Hasselhoff in the long face of the man sitting next to me in the car. He has the look of a country preacher, says his good friend, novelist Robert Stone. With his undershirt peeking over the top button of his red plaid flannel shirt, it is also easy to picture a methodical New England dory man.

An hour into our drive, Nunn mentions that he likes to carry a gun--a 9-millimeter Glock--when he travels. "I like plinking at rocks," he says. "You know, just target practice. And some of the places I go, I don't think it's a bad idea to have your own protection." He is talking about the forgotten country towns and no-name roadhouses where he tends to find many of his most memorable characters.

Beyond Orrick, as the fog-addled Christmas lights at Thompson's "Trees of Mystery" tourist stop flash by, Nunn suddenly eases off the accelerator. "My insurance company just told me they are canceling my policy," he says. "Too many speeding tickets." He reassures me that his insurance is still good for a few more days and returns to cruising speed.

The great-grandson of a citrus farmer and the son of a Pomona plumber, Nunn was raised in strict fundamentalist Christian fashion as a Jehovah's Witness. He began training for the ministry as a teenager, which secured him a draft deferment from the Vietnam War. But the road to the religious life was rocky. He fell in with bad company, got thrown out of high school and eventually left the church. He drifted to the coast, where he supported himself working in boatyards and running a janitorial service. On the side, he was painting and writing. In his late 20s he enrolled at UC Irvine as a studio arts major.

It wasn't until he read "Dog Soldiers," Stone's hardboiled tale of Vietnam-era drug smuggling, that he thought he might have a future as a professional writer. "I thought, this is something I could do," Nunn says, "tell a good, fast story that had something to say. That's how I came to write 'Tapping the Source.' I was living in Huntington Beach at the time, and it struck me as a fascinating milieu for a book. It was the last undeveloped beach town, full of surf shops, head shops and biker bars." Stone, whom Nunn had never met, turned up at Irvine during Nunn's senior year as a visiting author-in-residence. "Meeting him, for me, was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences," Nunn says. "He liked my work and introduced me to an agent."

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