THE SURF GURU by Doug Dorst

Book Quote:

“I thought about how sometimes loyalty is the one thing keeping you from dropping to your knees and howling like a poisoned animal in all your aloneness.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (SEP 23, 2011)

A collection of stories presents the reviewer with a special set of challenges. Unlike the novel, the story collection cannot be summarized by plot, character or linear narrative. Instead, the reviewer must search for common themes, or seek a common voice or style shared throughout the collection. Maybe that’ll be the hook. But even that simple conceit is challenged here, so cleverly disparate are these tales. The Surf Guru does not lend itself to such easy analysis.

The Surf Guru reads like a challenge to all that is conventional. Just when the reader begins to see a link, one story to the next–all these characters seem marginal, for instance–along comes the atypical character profile and out goes the convention of form. Similarly, from the venue of style, Mr. Dorst seems capable of exercising writer’s muscles not often, if ever, so clearly developed. Indeed, the linking aspect of this collection is its mix of tone, subject and verve. Even though some stories share characters, they have little in common, so as to read more like the chapbook of an extremely talented voice, then a “collection” of stories.

There is, for instance, the high-end wedding cake baker, Kacy, in the story “Dinaburg’s Cake.” Kacy is competing for the wedding business of the daughter of a New York businessman. She views the project as a spring board for her business, an opportunity to take her craft and her business to a new level. Simultaneously, her daughter suffers from trichotillomania (pulling out of one’s hair) and Kacy seems paralyzed by her daughter’s malady. She grows obsessed by the business opportunity while rejecting the obvious home challenge. Although the ending is a tad too neat, the story does not fail to upend the reader’s anticipation.

“Vikings,” a story told in the first person, is completely different. As the story opens we discover the narrator, Phil, awaiting his partner Tracey. “We were almost out of money,” relates Phil, “so Trace went to steal us another bottle of something. We were celebrating. The holiday weekend was almost over…” A couple of pages later, Trace returns. “…he was carrying a baby wrapped in a threadbare beach towel. ‘Hey, Phil,’ he said. ‘Look what I got.’ He held it up like it was a carnival prize. The baby’s eyes were shut, but it wrinkled its little fingers open and closed, so I knew it was alive.” There is a hearty dish of black humor to be consumed reading this book.

The stories often read more like vignettes, like extended studies in the absurd. There is the general of a foreign war who tosses decapitated heads about like bowling balls. An aging beauty who refuses to trade sex for a passing grade on a license to drive a big rig. “Suit yourself,” says the instructor. Another story finds a campaign advisor struggling to keep a loser candidate afloat–and alive–but failing. The title story portrays an aging surfing champion, turned entrepreneur watching an upstart generation of young surfers from his balcony, all but one, wearing a wetsuit emblazoned with his company name. We learn, among other things, that his wife “once bought a cable-knit doggie sweater at a church craft fair, but the dog bit her when she tried to force its legs into the sleeves.” In a deft conclusion to this abrupt vignette, we learn that, “Later, he and the dog played fetch with the sweater until it fell apart. From inside the house, she watched them with mercury eyes.” This is a voice with perfect pitch.

The story “Splitters” is composed as an academic’s lost manuscript, an acerbic review of famous botanists. It is complete with footnotes, editor’s comments and vintage photographs of the subjects. The “author,” Hartford Anderton Quilcock, has an axe to grind and intended on titling the manuscript, “Botanists in the Age of Quilcock: A field Guide to Frauds, Fools, Thieves, and Demagogues.” The story is perhaps the most extreme example of the author’s reach. It is clever and smart and sassy–completely original. But for this reader, it lacked the clear-eyed human aspect of the other stories.

Dorst is an original. This collection of stories, following the success of his highly-praised first novel, Alive in Necropolis, does not disappoint.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Trade; Reprint edition (August 2, 2011)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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September 23, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Short Stories

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