Book Review – Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn

  • Tijuana Straits
  • by Kem Nunn
  • Publisher – Scribner
  • Copyright 2004
  • 306 pages

Rating – 5/10

Summary – Kem Nunn’s Tijuana Straits (T.S.) contains elements of both a standard crime novel and a “serious” novel. In trying to strike this balance, T.S. is only a qualified success. At times, Nunn hits his stride; some of his writing is terrific. Unfortunately, at least as often, the book founders. T.S. isn’t bad, but it’s far from a “must read.”


Review – A few years ago, I found out about Kem Nunn’s novel Tapping the Source and bought it. At the same time, I bought a copy of another Nunn novel, Tijuana Straits. After reading Source (which I thought was pretty good), I didn’t come back to Nunn’s work for several years. But I finally read Tijuana Straits.

Sam Fahey & Magdalena Rivera

T.S. centers on Sam “The Gull” Fahey, who lives near California’s Pacific coast, just north of the Mexican border. Fahey was once a brilliant surfer, but he drifted into drug dealing, which ended with Fahey doing two stints in prison and committing a terrible act for which he cannot forgive himself. In giving Fahey an unlikable past, Nunn injects an element of drama into Tijuana Straits – Fahey’s flaws help to lift the novel above other novels that settle for the worn good-versus-evil plot.

Fahey is the standard anti-hero of post-1960s fiction: a marginally-employed, single man, with a chip on his shoulder regarding “The System.” He runs a worm farm on his property, which he inherited from his despicable father. The reader learns that Fahey has given up surfing decades before.

Enter Magdalena Rivera, a Mexican lawyer raised by Catholic nuns after the death of her mother. Magdalena has discovered that Tijuana’s businesspeople are destroying their workers’ health by exposing the workers to hazards on the job. Nunn should have done more character development on Magdalena. She’s likable, but she needs more depth, something like Fahey’s fatal flaw to draw in the reader and make her seem real. As is, she mainly serves as the attractive (but brainy) “good girl” who can draw Fahey out of his decades-long slump.

The Plot – Basic Stuff

Eventually, Magdalena’s activities cause her to run afoul of some bad, violent people. In trying to escape these people, Magdalena meets Fahey. The plot is no great shakes. Fans of crime fiction will feel that they’ve read this one before, just with different characters and in different settings.

So Why Read Tijuana Straits?

I’m not trying to make a case for T.S., but Tijuana Straits works relatively well as a character study. Yes, you’ve seen and read about people like Fahey before. But he’s an engaging character and you care about him. Fahey in Tijuana Straits reminds me of William Munny, as portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the film Unforgiven. In Unforgiven, Munny is an ex-gunfighter who is forced to consider (and to try to atone for) the poor choices that he made as a young man. Fahey is just such a character.

Also, one area where Nunn consistently shines is in his description of nature, particularly of the ocean. When Nunn writes of the natural world in Tijuana Straits, there is a depth, an insight, that makes you sit up and pay attention. Consider –

Fahey was sixteen at the time, and those were the golden years, the days he went to now in his mind, days of offshore winds and evening glass-offs, of rides so long one’s thighs burned at their ends. … In the end it was the Gull [Sam] alone, caught inside, awaiting obliteration, who’d seen Younger [Sam’s surfing mentor] on what just might have been one of the largest mountains of water ever ridden. It was not much more than a peek, really, for in a moment the very same wave that Hoddy [Younger] was riding would send him diving for deep water, holding to the eel grass that grew among the stones to save himself from being pulled back up into the maelstrom above… Christ, he must have made land hallway to Rosarito, then walked home, frozen to the bone … (Pp. 58-59).

Why You Should Skip Tijuana Straits

Besides T.S.’s slight plot, it has frustrating deficiencies. As mentioned before, Nunn couldn’t quite decide whether to make this formula crime fiction or a serious novel. This fence straddling blurs the book’s focus.

Problems also arise because Nunn often presents the same scene from the perspective of multiple narrators. For instance, Chapter 29 presents a showdown from Fahey’s perspective. Then, chapter 30 replays the same scene from the villain’s (Armando’s) viewpoint. This is an ambitious choice on Nunn’s part, requiring great writing skill. Unfortunately, Nunn doesn’t make it work. The effect is to slow momentum and frustrate the reader.

A bigger problem is that Nunn often shifts the book’s tone. The passages told from Sam’s perspective have a serious, sober-minded character. But the passages told from the bad guys’ perspective meld slapstick humor with ghastly violence. The latter scenes jar the reader, and detract from T.S.’s overall impression. (In melding slapstick humor and gratuitous violence, Nunn is following in the footsteps of Elmore Leonard, who also diminished some of his best books by including “funny violence”).

One final gripe is that the writing is not “tight.” On a trivial level, there are a few typos. (For instance, page 148 has “though” when it should have “through” and “carven” for “craven”). Much more serious is Nunn’s tendency to write sentences that go on forever. Nunn loses you in the middle of these monsters and you have to decide whether to start over or just keep plowing ahead. Finally, in a weak scene (pp. 176-7), Nunn has Fahey drink three beers in the midst of a conversation that lasts less than a page and half. I know that I’m nitpicking, but Nunn should have written a funnel into the story if Fahey was going to drink that much in that short of a talk.

(To be completely fair, Nunn does rally a bit at book’s end. He’d really lost me, but regained some ground with the end of T.S.).

Sunset on the Ocean

Tijuana Straits ain’t bad. But it’s the second Nunn book that I’ve read, and – while he shows flashes of brilliance in both – I haven’t seem him sustain it for a book. If you come across a Nunn novel, they’re worth a look. But I can’t rate them higher than “pretty good.”





About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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