Surf Guru Notes, #3


Rumpus Book Club Member John Francisconi with thoughts on July’s Book Club pick, The Surf Guru by Doug Dorst.

The Surf Guru is simply, and rather consistently, great. It’s a story collection I’d gladly recommend to anyone, without hesitation. I finished the book in one long stretch. Here are my impressions of the book’s concluding four stories.

In my first set of notes I noted that Dorst repeatedly wrote stories that concerned aging and the fear of maturation. This interest is again revealed on the second page of “The Candidate in Bloom.” Describing the titular candidate, Dorst writes, “He plays well among registered voters who self-identify as seeking that which cannot be reclaimed.” Besides being a nicely-constructed line, this sentence articulates the entire collection’s fixation with longing, for both that which can and cannot be “reclaimed.”

I liked “The Candidate in Bloom,” (which can be read here at The Rumpus) but I found it to be one of the collection’s weakest stories. It’s about an imbecilic candidate and his female campaign coordinator, and how behind even idiotic men there’s a good woman. I guess my main problem with the story is the exaggerated sense of danger that looms over everything the candidate says and does. It felt, yes, exaggerated, but moreover, unnecessary and mishandled.

At work in the story are two dangers: the potential physical danger the candidate puts himself in by electing himself to represent a group of people who he may or may not accurately, or fairly, or competently represent, and the political danger that his coordinator, Renata, sees in the candidate’s self-presentation, and image, and incompetence. Neither one of these creates any serious tension, though, because there are traces of unfitting, almost jarring humor.

There is also, I feel, not enough time spent on the characters. It’s like the old saying, “Show a gun in the first act, it’ll be fired in the third,” except that we spend the entire story, first act through last, staring only at the gun. Perhaps I’ll revisit “The Candidate in Bloom” in the future, but as it stands it is one of my least favorite stories from The Surf Guru.

The next story, “What Is Mine Will Know My Face,” brings back best friends Trace and Phil (from “Vikings”), and further introduces and develops Mo, Trace’s ex-girlfriend in “Vikings” and still-girlfriend in “What Is Mine,” which is set before the events of “Vikings.”  In “What Is Mine,” Phil has to confront Mo about her infidelity, which he learned about at his job, as a deliverer of carnations for Smiley’s Florists. When Phil recognizes Mo’s name and address on a new delivery, he eases open the attached message and learns that Mo’s love for Trace has been dishonest, that the flowers are from a man who isn’t Trace.

“What Is Mine Will Know My Face” has real life. Take, for example, this paragraph from early in the story, as Phil drives Trace to the hospital for an operation on his recently kicked-in eye:

The van bumped over frost heaves left by the hard winter. We drove past the high school we’d gone to – I’d graduated, he’d been kicked out – and we drove through the double-S turn that killed our friend Crockett while Trace and I were passed out in his backseat. We drove past the golf course where we’d both gotten laid for the first time, up on the thirteenth green, which on clear nights had a view of Manhattan. We drove past the house my parents had to sell when they split up for the first time, and past a marsh where Trace and I had rescued an injured heron when we were little. It was strange, I thought, how much of our lives you could see from this one road.

So much life in that paragraph! Dorst’s characters and city and road (!) practically breathe in this excerpt and throughout the rest of the story. Perhaps I feel this way because I deeply connect with Phil, the narrator of “What Is Mine.” He feels as real as parts of myself feel.

Trace has a line in “What Is Mine” about how Phil, unlike Trace, is probably better off alone. And he may be right. Phil enjoys his solitude, his quiet walks downtown. I also think he must enjoy, at some level, taking on Trace’s emotional burdens as his own. He suffers, and loves, vicariously, with Trace. This is why he has remained friends with him, despite their many character differences. This is why, as the reader knows, Phil is bound to be led across the country by and with Trace in “Vikings.” But there’s always a longing for a personal connection that’s solely yours, and that longing is gracefully written about in his scene with Mo, as well as in the scene where he attempts, unsuccessfully, to get information about a customer at Smiley’s. In said attempt, Phil is foiled by a run-in with two characters, his boss and ex-wife, the owner of a competing floristry, that we were trained to believe hated one other. In that scene, they’re making love. Disappointment fills Phil. My best friend has love, he thinks, and even these two, who despise each other, share love, yet I don’t, I can’t. At story’s end, very little “knows his face,” for very little belongs to him.

I did not like “Little Reptiles.” I almost want to leave it at that, but that’s not fair. There have been complaints in the discussion group on Google of “overwrought-ness” in The Surf Guru’s writing. I did not agree with this criticism until “Little Reptiles.” It just did not vibrate with me. Dorst’s sentences, for the first time, felt as if they were trying to impress me.

Writing is never effortless, but good writing can often produce the illusion that it is. Every story in this collection, besides “Little Reptiles,” presents, to me, that illusion that good writers write well without even trying, that their talent for sentence- and story-construction is boundless and uncomplicated. “Little Reptiles,” then, is a rare miss in an otherwise wholly enjoyable collection.

“Astronauts,” The Surf Guru’s final story, follows Jo, arguably the collection’s biggest fuck-up, as she experiences fourteen pages of intense failure, and one sentence of hope.

In a book filled with stories that end with resolutions both easy (the cake-eating scene in “Dinaburg’s Cake,” the father-daughter moment in “La Fiesta”) and hard (Phil’s emptiness at the end of “What Is Mine,” the Candidate’s assassination), the ending of “Astronauts” is something of an anomaly. It is equal amounts promise and hopelessness, consolatory and discomforting.

Towards the end there’s a hokey intervention of sorts, for Jo, the message of which, however uninformed, goes completely ignored. Jo charts her own path from story’s start to finish, for better or (more likely) worse. Hers is a life perpetually spiraling downward, I believe, but one which she is always in reasonable control of. It is not an elegant fall, but one that Jo could probably right, if she thinks her life and her decisions and her personal relationships through. She is, throughout, a disaffected character, wanting both grounded-ness (the tractor-trailer driver’s license, the open road) and ethereality (flotation, like that of the inflatable pool chair, or an astronaut; the erraticism, the excitement and unpredictability of weightlessness).

As noted by Kevin Thomas in the Google group discussion, “Astronauts,” like several stories in the collection, has great pacing, “velocity” to quote Kevin, compelling the reader to finish it in one enjoyable gulp.

Did you enjoy The Surf Guru? How did you feel about the final stories? Having finished the book, do you feel compelled (as I do) to seek out Dorst’s novel, Alive In Necropolis? Or his forthcoming novel, reportedly about a “young couple who’ve faked their own deaths”? As always, discuss in the comments!

John Francisconi is currently studying film production at Emerson College in Boston. He lives in New London, Connecticut. He blogs here. More from this author →