Rebecca K. O’Connor: The Last Book I Loved, Tapping the Source


It’s never too late to read a book you should have read when you were 21, or to find a lost love or to realize that everything is interlinked and woven tight and turns back on itself.

I say this even though I only just figured it out last month when a lover 15-years-lost and I sat with beers between us and a two days worth of conversation to be had. He had just finished reading my memoir, a book steeped in falconry as metaphor and he said, “I couldn’t stop thinking of Kem Nunn. Surely, you’ve read Tapping the Source.”  Then when he saw I was reading Doug Dorst’s short story collection The Surf Guru, he again reminded me that I must read Nunn’s novel.

I hadn’t heard of Kem Nunn, although I can’t say why. Nunn is the father of the surf novel and perhaps even the surf culture’s mystique. And although I’ve often thought that California falconers have a culture and a mythology comparable to our surfing counterparts, I wasn’t entirely convinced. I had, after all, seen Point Break and I am immeasurably grateful that no one ever cast Keanu Reeves as falconer. All the same, I read Nunn’s first novel in two sittings only interrupted by the need to put the book face down to pace with my arms wrapped across my shoulders or to sleep.

Tapping the Source begins in the desert, arguably where most journeys of the soul begin. The California desert especially has the distinction of being a place where the fucked-up station and wander and sometimes find their way back to the water. Nunn’s protagonist Ike has been exiled to the desert by an absentee mother, but it’s the disappearing act his sister pulls that takes him to the shore, a reluctant but resolute hero. His task is simple; to find out if three men, all tied to Huntington Beach, may have murdered his sister. It is Ike’s fall once he reaches the beach that makes the book so gratifying, even as you know he will ultimately emerge from the roiling surf.

Surfing, like my mistress falconry has a group of hardcore individuals who manage their lives by the flow of the seasons. It is a passion pressed by the constant influx of people and the disappearing landscape. These pressures, not distinctly Californian, but deep set in our collective all the same, create a culture of mysticism and balance at its best moments, aggression and excess at its worst. We fight for space on water and for creative (read: questionable) ways to make our living so that we never have to pry ourselves from the remaining open space. And the damage done to the people around us can be immense. This is the world that has taken the protagonist’s sister, but Ike falls face-in-the-sand for it. Nunn, a surfer himself, portrays his world with unflinching and graceful prose.

The allure of surfing is inescapable to Ike, but all great arts require apprenticeship. You need a mentor. Ike quickly finds that the guru of this novel, Hound Adams, the surfer who turns the story on its head is both brilliant and dangerous. A true guru is never what he seems. (True in Dorst’s gorgeous title story, “The Surf Guru” as well.) And then neither is the beach or the brilliantly done plot of Nunn’s novel. Tapping the Source has it all. There is murder, mystery, dual-sided characters, debauchery, the temptation and pull of the California coast and a protagonist who is you. There are still great journeys to have in this life, dark and dangerous, visionary and soul-changing and you could be Ike too.

Tapping the Source was a novel I wasn’t prepared to read and those are always the best kind, especially when they resonate with your life. Life is surfing. Life is falconry. Life is lost love that of course, is unlikely to work out a second time either. Life is a book you should have read, but at least it’s not too late to read it.

Rebecca K. O’Connor is the author of the award-winning falconry memoir Lift published by Red Hen Press in 2009. She has published essays in South Dakota Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Los Angeles Times Magazine, West, Coachella Review, divide, and has had essays included in New California Writing 2011 and 2012. Her novel, Falcon’s Return was a Holt Medallion Finalist for best first novel and she has published numerous reference books on the natural world. More from this author →