Review: The Surf Guru by Doug Dorst

In Book Review by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

The Surf Guru shows off what Doug Dorst does best, which is channel an array of lifelike voices that seem to be simultaneously of and not of this world.

Much like his debut novel, 2008’s Alive in Necropolis, which featured a cast of fictional and historical characters, some who were alive and most who were dead, his latest book covers a lot of ground. There are stories about rebel armies, political candidates on a downward spiral and Latin American towns with bizarre rituals of justice. Settings range from modern-day California to 19th-century France.

In the title story, a dying “Surf Guru” sits on the deck of his house, drinking Chianti out of a coffee mug and watching as surfers navigate the nearby waves. He notes that most of the surfers are donning his namesake GOO-ROO-brand surf gear, save for a few iconoclasts who opt for that of his competitors, Pacific Skin and LoweRider; he also muses on his life.

The story is broken into sections that vary in length from a single sentence – “Some say the Surf Guru controls the tides” – to several paragraphs, and the tone alternates between quirky, disengaged philosophizing (on the metaphorical meaning of hats, for example) to more urgent matters including disease, divorce and the demise of his company. The story masterfully mimics the ebb and flow, ripple and crash of the waves themselves.

Austin is the setting for “Dinaburg’s Cake,” about a woman who runs a high-end custom-cake business out of her home. When she loses a lavish commission for a wedding to take place at the Four Seasons Hotel, she finds herself increasingly critical of her seemingly disconnected husband and her children, one of whom has the disturbing nervous tic of pulling hair from her head. Yet after a freak accident at a birthday party involving a piñata, a baseball bat and someone’s face, she realizes that her life should be appreciated for what it is, and not what she thought she wanted it to be.

Dorst, a professor of creative writing at St. Edward’s University in Austin, is clearly a great student himself. One story, “Splitters,” carries a subtitle, “H.A. Quilcock’s Profiles in Botany: A Lost Manuscript Restored,” and offers a fictionalized portrait of the work of one Hartford Anderton Quilcock, a troublesome 19th- and early 20th-century academic, who offers a series of quirky portraits of botanists – all heavily footnoted. It reads like a mash-up of Donald Barthelme and David Foster Wallace.

Another, “What Is Mine Will Know My Face,” about a New Jersey florist delivery driver who discovers his best friend’s girl is cheating, begins with the line, “I drove Trace to the hospital the day they tried to fix his eye,” which immediately brings to mind the matter-of-fact tone of Denis Johnson’s famous story “Emergency,” which features a man with a hunting knife stuck in his eye.

Trace appears in another story, “Vikings,” as a drifter (his girl having left him for a bench-warming New York Yankee) who finds himself marooned in a town in the Mojave Desert while on his way to Alaska. When Trace is handed an infant by a meth addict, he and his friend join a gay hustler and head with the baby to a bar, only to end up in a very bad way in a seedy hotel. This kind of intense “dirty realism” would do a younger Richard Ford proud.

None of this detracts from Dorst’s originality. It merely underscores the company he keeps. He has delivered a collection that is consistently enjoyable from start to finish.

The Surf Guru is published in the United States by Riverhead Books.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.