California Dreaming Gone Seriously Sour

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

Photo by Greg JonesJust South of the galleries, bistros and bikini shops along the coast highway in downtown Laguna Beach, not far from the gated subdivisions and human-free, boulevarded badlands of Laguna Niguel, Kem Nunn lives on a lush and untidy, poinciana-lined street a half-mile uphill from the beach. "This is a little piece of what Laguna used to be," says Nunn, standing in his kitchen and gesturing out the window, his voice more resigned than mournful.

The shadow of what "used to be" falls hard over Nunn's fiction, and it's here in this house, too. It's almost the first thing you see when you walk in the door, a framed black-and-white photo of a Victorian house covered with a thin dusting of snow. "Pomona in the snow—you don't see that very often," Nunn says, the photo in his hand. The house belonged to his great-grandfather, who was lured to "the land of perpetual sunshine," Nunn grins, to make his fortune growing oranges. "He was really on his way. He had his grove, he had a fumigation business, he had an interest in a packing house. Then he went up to Modesto and drank some bad water and died of typhoid fever. Thus began the long decline." By the time Nunn was a kid—he's 56 now, tall and lanky with a grayish-brown goatee but not much hair on top—all but an acre of the orange groves had been sold off, "and they were in pretty bad shape. I had an aunt that inherited the house, and it was kind of crumbling around her. There was something Gothic about the place."

The same could be said for Nunn's work. In five novels published over 20 years, Nunn has covered various permutations of the California dream gone seriously sour. He began in 1984 with Tapping the Source, his first foray into the collapse of the surfer ideal, set in an already unrecognizable, slow and sleazy Huntington Beach, where "what had once passed as hunger and vitality had only a certain desperateness about it now, coked-out fatigue because they had all lost and it was one great bummer, one long drop with no way back over the top." Tapping won him an instant cult following and became the first volume of Nunn's trilogy in a genre all his own: the SoCal Surf Gothic. (The second in the series was The Dogs of Winter, and Tijuana Straits, published this month, completes the project.) Since then, Nunn has traced all manner of local subcultures seeking salvation but somehow ending up demonic parodies of their original aspirations. Think Paradise Lost with a Peckinpah finish.

Part of his fascination with the Fall surely grows out of Nunn's religious upbringing. His folks were devout Jehovah's Witnesses, and there is still, he says, "a whole area of my own experience that's somehow only available to me in the language of religion." Until Tijuana Straits, this was most obvious in his second novel, the terrifically strange Unassigned Territory, which featured a Witness-like proselytizing sect, "celestial visitors," crystals, something called the Electro-Magnetron and the music of the spheres.

But another part of it, Nunn says, sitting straight-backed on a futon couch in his sparsely decorated living room, his long legs crossed, is that while "California has always trafficked in its own myth and sold itself . . . there was always a dark side to the picture. Chandler gets that a whole lot in his books, but for me it was personal. Southern California is such a beautiful area, and it's just sort of breathtaking the way they've pillaged and raped and plundered. And there's no stopping them—every time you turn around, they've found a new hill to carve into."

A certain apocalyptic breed of environmentalism has lurked in the background of Nunn's work since the start—"Fucking developers," growls one character in Tapping the Source. "People. Fuckers'll all drown in their own garbage before it's over." In his latest, though, it's right up front and more biblical than ever, even in the first sentence: "The woman appeared with the first light, struggling across the dunes, a figure from the Revelation."

Tijuana Straits is set in the Tijuana River Valley, the marshy lowlands that stretch along the border to Imperial Beach, soaking up all the toxic sludge the foreign-owned maquiladoras can spit out. In the book, Nunn compares the valley to "the forbidden zone in Planet of the Apes, a vast wasteland caught between the gates of two cities, a repository of fringe dwellers and secret histories." He also calls it "the goddamn toilet of the Western world," frequented by "the assorted cowboys, truck farmers, Indians, environmentalists, drug runners, bandidos and burro eaters."

Among them is Sam Fahey, who was a near-legendary surfer way back in the prelapsarian "golden years," when "the light was still pure, before the smog, before the fence at the heart of the valley, before the shit had hit the fan." Fahey, like many of Nunn's characters, has taken more than his share of wrong turns. When we meet him, he is suffering his way through some very bad speed, tracking feral dogs in Border Field State Park, hoping to supplement the meager income he squeezes out of the worm farm he inherited from his crooked father. (More doomed California dreamin': "vermiculture, the road to riches . . .") He stumbles across Magdalena Rivera, fleeing from the men who tried to kill her on a highway fronting the border. She's an activist, an impassioned crusader for the workers who are being slowly (and not so slowly) poisoned by the toxins shat out of the maquiladoras. Against his better judgment, Fahey saves her.

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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