Tapping the Source

3 Mins read

Written by Kem Nunn — In the 1960s, it seemed that running away from home in a deadbeat town or suburb to live communally with the hippies in Haight-Ashbury was an ideal for many American youths. In the 80s, runaways were perhaps a bit less idealistic but being with the skaters, surfers and punks somewhere along the California coastline was a lot more fun than staying in an abusive home. For Ike Tucker it’s not about fun and nor is it about the usual ideals in this classic noir novel first published in 1983 and here reprinted by No Exit Press.

Ike is obsessed with his older sister, Ellen. He leaves the desert town of San Arco, where he lived with is disinterested uncle and crazed grandmother, to find out what happened to Ellen after she ran away. A kid in a white Camero has given him a note with three names on it – Hound Adams, Frank Baker and Terry Jacobs. These are the guys who surf the pier on Huntington Beach, and who took Ellen to Mexico with them and left her there… dead or alive, nobody knows.

Straight away, Kem Nunn pulls you into a world that is raw and elemental, reflected via Ike’s perspective which is tough and sensitive at the same time. He’s a scrawny 17-year-old, who regards himself as a hick, but the bleached out colour and energy of both the desert and the ocean are poetically rendered around him by the author. Ike gets a room by the coastal highway, and soon identifies Hound Adams, blond-haired and seemingly ageless, sunburned and the guru of beach culture. Also a major supplier of weed to the constant stream of runaways arriving in Huntington Beach.

Ike is as complete a character as you’re likely to read in crime fiction. His awkwardness and sense of being on the outside looking in are juxtaposed with great confidence in certain matters. His skill with tuning Harley engines and popping dented fuel tanks back to perfection endear him to the king of the local bikers, Preston Marsh. It turns out that Preston was a titan of the waves just like Hound Adams, but something went down between them years back which left Preston damaged for life. One minute an angry alcoholic, the next almost a father figure to Ike, he warns the boy off trying to find out about his sister.

But Ike struggles to read the older male characters in his world, and though he learns plenty from Preston he cannot give up on finding his sister. A burst of violence peels Ike away from Preston and into the orbit of Hound Adams and even though Ike has met a girl he loves, Hound soon has him rounding up juvenile females for his house parties, which sometimes turn into strobe light orgies. Ike is beginning to lose himself in the surfing and drugs scene and the plot line is almost lost with him – or seems to become unimportant, at least – as a kind of survival mode sets in, not just for Ike but for Preston and some of the other characters too. Whatever went down between Hound and Preston all those years ago becomes as important to Ike as discovering the fate or his sister, and a ranch down the coast with a hidden beach and an owner in the movie business seems to hold the key.

Tapping the Source is one of the great American noir novels and should to be read alongside Chandler, Highsmith, Lehane, Sallis and the like. You’ll find yourself embedded in the SoCal spirit of the 80s, with its smooth talkers and hard punchers; a lawless place where the pounding of the waves and the churning of the oil derricks syncopate with the drug deals and money shots. It’s a coming of age novel like The Catcher in the Rye, with all the hurt and desperation of a boy who misses his older sister – misses her too much – and to find her must find himself.

No Exit Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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