Adolescent males, before puberty sets in and they become caught up with girls, often find themselves drawn to magnetic older males. For some, these men are charismatic teachers; for others, they are soldiers, or movie stars, or sportsmen, or successful hobbyists. In Australian author Tim Winton's latest novel, twelve- and thirteen-year-old Bruce Pike and Ivan Loon's attraction is directed toward Sando, a gruff, powerful surfer who knows the location of all the secret beaches and loves to take risks as much as they do. But friendships often crack under the pressure of constant thrill-seeking, and the addition of Eva, Sando's depressed wife, adds sexual energy to an already volatile threesome.
Bruce, or Pikelet, as he is known, is the narrator of the novel and acts as the serious straight man to the increasingly dangerous antics of 'Loonie' and Sando. The first third of the novel sees Winton carving a landscape that is strong and hostile, a craggy section of West Australian coast showing nature at her bleakest and most elemental. Surfing is the only thing for a young boy to do in the small town of Sawyer, and with the inherent challenge that comes from mastering the brutality of the waves is added the necessity to prove yourself courageous to your mates, no matter how stupid you know your actions to be.
Loonie 'liked anything with an edge on it.' He is reckless, dangerous, and the town's scapegoat for trouble. Bruce attaches himself to Loonie with all the longing of a boy who just wants a friend, no matter how little the friendship is returned. Loonie uses his home as a place to get away from his abusive publican father on the weekends and uses his eagerness to please to goad both Bruce and himself into greater acts of irresponsibility.
Soon the boy's run out of bluster, their prepubescent minds capable of stretching the norms of society only so far. Enter Sando. Here is a man in his thirties who seems to not require a job to provide for himself, and who does nothing but surf. He is huge, strong, supple, and talented beyond the teenage boys Loonie and Bruce previously wanted to impress. Naturally, a rivalry for Sando's affection ensues, and just as naturally, Bruce loses out. The meek may inherit the earth, but they will never prove themselves worthy in the eyes of a father-figure. At the beginning of their relationship, Bruce writes, 'So there we were, this unlikely trio. A select and peculiar club, a tiny circle of friends, a cult, no less.' By the end, he has come to dislike the pressure of constant danger and relentless one-upmanship.
Here Winton introduces the final piece of the puzzle in Eva, Sando's wife and formerly a minor character. Bruce becomes obsessed with her as he enters his fourteenth year, their dark sexual games shining a bleak light on activities that might just be even more dangerous and foolhardy than riding the tallest wave.
Winton has used a very old framework from which to hang his tale, and the characters populating the short novel are few. Because of this, the intensity of the trio – or foursome, if we include Eva – is immense, and the stakes are measurably high. When Loonie or Bruce takes a wave we know they cannot master, true emotion is felt. Our adult mind is able to rationalize the danger of what they are attempting – we know there is more at stake than simply who is courageous and who is a 'sissy'.
Sando is a powerful force in the novel. He is a character drawn with a very wide brush, with Winton choosing archetype over nuance. This works to the novel's advantage as the intensity is enhanced and the certainty of Bruce collapses. There is a very real risk when writing a character whose primary function is to observe the activities of others, but Winton succeeds by humanizing Bruce in small but effective ways. He is not a fool, or timid; rather, he is intelligent enough to be aware that something is wrong with his relationship with Loonie and Sando, but he isn't quite mature enough to figure out what. Further touches that separate him from the other two such as a failed high-school relationship and two older, doddering but sweet parents, work to lift the character from a trope to a person.
Where Breath fails is in its final third. Once Winton has completed the plot involving the trio, he introduces another, darker, less satisfying element that doesn't fit well with the rest of the work and comes across as a slapped-on section to help complete the book. Also, he cheats by tying in the very first chapter – which sees a fifty-year-old Bruce examine a young boy who has committed accidental suicide by hanging – to the conclusion. Cut both these sections away and the novel, which was already short, would have been a minor miracle of childhood, male bonding and friendship gone wrong. As it stands, Winton missteps so badly that he risks sullying the high quality of the rest of the novel. Couple that with a bizarre jump through thirty-five years of Bruce's misspent adulthood, and we are left with a sad mess of a tale that fails to live up to its immense promise.
Winton captures masterfully the bluster of youth and the attraction of adolescents to power and risk. Though the novel is written as though it is looking back at an older man's childhood, it avoids sentimentality or mawkish emotion. Winton's writing is tight and spare, echoing the brisk bite of the ocean wind and the sharp taste of sea salt. The failure comes down purely to plotting, and while it is a regrettable mistake it does not completely tarnish what has been achieved. Had he pulled off a successful conclusion, this would have become another fine mark in Winton's career; but the novel as written can only be considered a minor work.