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Treading water on the border

Tijuana Straits A Novel Kem Nunn Scribner: 310 pp., $25

August 15, 2004|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen is a Times staff writer and a frequent contributor to Book Review.

In a land of lost dreams, California has many fault lines, and in recent years novelist Kem Nunn has proved as fine a guide to them as one could hope. In four novels he has plumbed the depths of Huntington Beach, the Mojave Desert, Pomona and the coast north of San Francisco. As dark as his portraits are, nothing prepares you for the savage beauty of his latest locale, the least-sung corner of the state, the Tijuana River Valley.

Just north of the border, just south of Imperial Beach, this forgotten floodplain is a no-man's land of crime and pollution, "a repository of fringe dwellers and secret histories." Border Patrol, truck farmers, American Indians, drug runners, coyotes and migrants hold court here amid muck and mud, marsh and sandbar. For Sam Fahey it is a decent place to escape the past.

Fahey is a lost soul in his 40s tending to his dead father's worm farm a mile or so inland. Beer, pills and the occasional snort of crystal meth keep memories at bay -- of the old man, the mother he never knew, drug busts, jail time and a killer winter surf -- but it's a fragile defense that crumbles one morning when a 23-year-old Mexican woman who has survived a near-drowning runs toward him on the beach pleading for help.

Since his 1984 debut, "Tapping the Source," a story of the underworld of Huntington Beach surf culture, Nunn has been perfecting his vision of hell. It's a strange brew of violence, seediness, nasty details, scriptural cadences and copious amounts of drugs. His characters, all outsiders, are onetime contenders who bailed on life and are branded for their failures.

Fahey resembles previous leads -- especially Jack Fletcher from the 1997 novel "The Dogs of Winter" -- but "Tijuana Straits" is a tighter story, a compelling little crucible of evil and nascent love, succeeding on the strength of its characters, the velocity of the plot, its location on la frontera and the terrific surfing back story.

Strange but true, in the sightline of the Tijuana bullring was one of the best surfing spots in the state, known for its three, sometimes four, breaks. In digging up this history, Nunn reminds us that before Maverick's, before Todos Santos -- destinations for big-wave riders today -- there was the Tijuana Sloughs, a destination that attracted surfers from the late 1930s through the early 1960s, until toxic runoff took it off the radar.

Magdalena Rivera, an environmental activist, escapes these waters in the opening pages and with a little Betadine and Cipro is nursed back to health by Fahey. Cutting between past and present, Nunn tells us how she was driven off the road the night before in Tijuana and fled from her assailants into the ocean. She was trying to get a maquiladora cleaned up and is certain someone wants to stop her. She now needs Fahey's help.

The story itself is nothing new -- a dissolute soul drawn from retirement makes a claim to past greatness -- but Nunn infuses the formula with enough energy, intelligence and indignation to drive us to the last page in a single sitting. It helps too that his villain is sympathetic and hideous all at once.

Armando Santoya is a child of the damned. As a boy, he dreamed of becoming a boxer but wasn't any good. He found work gluing leather on steering wheels (40 a day for $2.69) in a factory where managers "walked the floor, figuring quotas, flirting with the workers, most of whom were young women not yet out of their teens.... It made for a crazy, sex-charged atmosphere, stoned on fumes beneath leering eyes, ghetto blasters spewing sound from every table, the entire factory rocking to techno-house with a Tex-Mex beat."

In charting Santoya's progress from worker to husband to bereaved father -- his son dies soon after birth -- to doper to killer, Nunn borrows a page from the great 19th century chroniclers of urban filth and crime, and he aligns himself with his mentor, author Robert Stone, placing Santoya's motivation squarely in the madness of his time and place.

With one sentence -- "In a world where babies were born without brains, it was just natural that a man should want to do a little harm" -- Nunn makes clear the consequences of our disconnected world, where rich and poor exist side by side and the worst evil is born out of mismatched economies, poverty and helplessness.

"In the margins of the community," Nunn quotes Michel Foucault in an epigraph, "at the gates of the cities, there stretched great zones

Against this backdrop, Magdalena's crusade -- informed by a mix of Marxism and liberation theology -- slowly cuts through Fahey's nihilism, shame and self-contempt. As Nunn deepens the relationship between the two, he brings the surfer closer to everything that "left him feeling old and scared and ready to be good."

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