California Dreaming Gone Seriously Sour

Kem Nunn on environmental apocalypse, surfing subcultures and his new novel, Tijuana Straits

Thus begins the darkest of Nunn's novels—and the most overtly politically engaged. It is not merely the bloodiest but also the most horrific, describing in Dickensian detail the atmosphere on the factory floors of Mesa de Otay, in the adjoining shantytowns, in a hospital in which an entire wing is devoted to "children born without brains, the children of factory workers." Violence is the least of it: "In a world where babies were born without brains, it was just natural that a man should want to do a little harm."

This admixture of environmentalist politics (how many other surf novels mention NAFTA?), Nunn says, came naturally. "From the very beginning, with Tapping the Source, I wanted surfing to have a kind of metaphorical role in the story. Surfing for me is a way of communing with nature, and that's at the heart of it for me. If it's seen in that light, we ought to do our best by nature." As for the specter of the end times shimmering over the action, Nunn laughs, "These are apocalyptic days, in more ways than one." He doesn't laugh long. "There is a coming environmental crisis. It's not like the science is still out on it: The ice is melting. It's not something that's maybe going to happen."

A wetsuit hangs to dry on Kem Nunn's patio: he still surfs, but never off Imperial Beach, where Tijuana Straits' climax is set. The water is too polluted. Navy SEALS, Nunn says, stopped training there because "they were losing too many people to weird flesh-eating bacteria." Instead, Nunn surfs the comparatively pristine waves just offshore from the bulbous nuclear reactors at San Onofre. It is, he admits, "a little surreal."

As one character in Tijuana Straits observes, "It's not like it was."

Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn; Simon & Schuster. hardcover, 320 pages, $25.

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