Tapping the Source
by Kem Nunn
No Exit Press
Rating – 8/10
Summary – Tapping the Source is a “missing person” mystery set in Huntington Beach, California. The book has tons of atmosphere – surfing, sex, coming-of-age, and great characters. As Charlie Sheen might say, what’s not to like? Unfortunately, author Kem Nunn’s contrived, unbelievable ending almost ruins his fine work over the novel’s first 250 pages.
Review – Critics have called Kem Nunn’s novels “surf noir” and that description certainly fits Tapping the Source. In Tapping, eighteen-year-old Ike Tucker is languishing in a small desert town when a mysterious stranger appears with a story. The stranger says that Ike’s runaway sister, Ellen, took a trip to Mexico with three men from Huntington Beach, California. The men came back. Ellen didn’t. The stranger gives Ike the name of the three men, then drives away.
Ike journeys to Huntington Beach and quickly grows to like it. The search for Ellen leads Ike into the surfing culture with its drugs, sex and rock n’ roll lifestyle. Predictably, he finds that the world both attracts and repels. Ike’s coming of age, and struggle to find himself, is a major theme of Tapping.
The search for answers centers on two men – Preston Marsh and Hound Adams. Back in the 1960s, Preston was the star surfer at Huntington, but by the time Ike meets him he has become a burned-out biker after a tour in Vietnam. The dejection that Preston feels helps create a downcast mood that pervades the entire book. However, in Nunn’s hands, the novel never becomes bogged down in the blues. In this passage, Nunn paints a vivid picture of the good life gone bad:
“It’s just different now,” Preston went on. “I’ve got too many good memories, too many good waves.” He poked at the coals with a fresh stick. Ike watched him, hunched up, squinting into the ashes, and somehow he didn’t get the idea that Preston was thinking back on good times. He looked to Ike more like someone who had lost something and couldn’t see the way to get it back” (pp. 82-83).
Hound Adams is one of the three men who supposedly took Ike’s sister to Mexico. One of the best decisions that Nunn made in writing Tapping was not to make Adams a one-dimensional villain. Instead, Adams is the current “king of the surfers” at Huntington Beach and the embodiment of surfer cool. At one point, Hound bravely helps Ike during a fight with some bikers. Adams is even a bit of a thinker, telling Ike – who is trying to learn to surf – how to approach the waves:
“These waves demand a certain commitment. Once you’ve picked a wave, don’t let yourself think about anything else, don’t doubt what you can do. Paddle as hard and fast as you can. You’ll get into the wave faster and with more control. Don’t hold back. Be part of it. Understand?” (p. 156).
Nunn’s willingness to take an evil character and give him redeeming qualities tells potential readers a lot about Tapping – there are no easy answers.
So why isn’t my rating higher? Nunn comes up with a half-baked explanation for Ellen’s disappearance and it detracts from the book’s momentum. I’m not sure why Nunn fails on this key point when the rest of the novel works so well. Perhaps he got tired of writing or maybe his creativity failed him. A critic once said that mystery novels are all build up. The riddle itself is the best part because it allows the reader’s mind to run wild; the solution is never quite as good the riddle. Even though the riddle is terrific in Tapping, I still would have liked a better ending.
In spite of my carping, I still like Tapping the Source. The strong writing and great characters (mostly) make up for the careless plotting. In fact, I have ordered two of Nunn’s other novels, Pomona Queen and Tijuana Straits. More on those later…