“Kook” is a beautiful book and a striking piece of prose.
Peter Heller approaches surfing like a poet. He sees more hues than Renoir and soaks in every flavor and scent. He bathes us in the scene.
“We climbed out and stretched. The air was soft and warm like brushed flannel. It smelled like creosote and flowers and the tang of some sagey herb, and there was a damp scent of recent rain. The ground was fine dust and dry, but in this desert the ground can be dry minutes after a shower. We walked to the edge of the cliff and peered over; we were high enough up that a tumble over the edge would mean certain death. There was the sea, oddly unfamiliar. She felt at the moment like a girl you have known for a while but see in make up for the first time. I don’t know why. And right below us was the wave. One of the waves. We had heard there were several. On our right, the cliff jutted out to a shallow point. Dark rocks tumbled out into the water, forming a reef. That’s where it started breaking. As it pushed in, it shaped itself into a wall. A perfect slate-blue wall. Straight as a chalk line. And long. Mother of God, how long it was. The break ripped white along the face of it as evenly as the rear tab on a FedEx pack.”
As readers, we bob on the board with Heller, watching for waves. We struggle to find our balance, we revel in a brief ride. We walk wet from the surf, sandy and dinged up and determined to get back on the board. We feel his ache to master the sport, we start to read waves and how they break.
Heller’s lyrical poetry is the main tug through the book. It will help your enjoyment of “Kook” if you have a bit of interest in surfing. Or the ocean. There are many keen observations about the ocean and development along its shores. Heller keeps a sharp eye for disappearing mangroves, overly aggressive developments.
“Kook” (the term is used for rookie surfers; newbies) isn’t all waves and boards. It’s about learning a new skill and grasping the many nuances that go with it. It’s about travel, in this case down the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. It’s about the variety of characters Heller encounters: formal and informal surfing instructors, fellow surfers, fellow travelers and strangers too. It’s also about The Beast, an overhauled VW van with its own quirks and issues. And it’s about Kim, Heller’s companion on the trip, and it’s about their relationship.
The sections about his relationship with Kim are recounted with the same clear-eyed honesty as everything else in the book and, in spots, Heller lets us see his weaknesses, particularly his lack of patience. Full disclosure: Peter Heller and I are friends. But in his writing he reveals some raw, difficult edges of his personality that casual friends might not see (I certainly had not) and, in a way, Heller fesses up. I only wish there had been some wrap-up on how he steadied the keel with Kim; she seemed to disappear a bit from view at the end.
Along the way with “Kook,” Heller recounts brief bits of previous adventures that led to previous outstanding books, “Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River,” “The Whale Warriors” (a trip on the same boat that’s featured in Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” documentary series) and his work with the crew saving dolphins that was featured in “The Cove.” Heller’s fearless, adventurous spirit is palpable throughout “Kook” too, but he’s also an artist working to paint moving scenes, in this case with words.
One more sample: “We drove down into the dry-season heat of southern Oaxaca. Rough coastal hills, big spreading ceiba trees at the edges of pastures, small villages of thatch-roofed shacks. We crossed long bridges over wide rivers that ran mud-brown and slow now with the first mountain rains, rains that hadn’t gotten down to the low country. The rivers were lined with palms and cornfields and they emptied into the sea below us. Others were dry beds reflecting back the midday sun, and horses wandered the arroyos and banks. I loved being on the road again. We stopped for lunch at a roadside shack that canted in a billow of fragrant smoke and steam curling out in the open kitchen. The woman offered us two platos del dia: iguana and armadillo. We had Cokes and drove on.”
In my book, it’s rare to have a tough-as-nails, full-throttle adventurer who has the ability to stop and see moments—and many others—like that one. All in all, it makes “Kook” worth reading and Peter Heller (and Kim) worth getting to know.