Summer Solace

More From the May Bookshelf

Don't let the pastoral view fool you, the Creole Trail in Louisiana's Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is abuzz with all forms of life.

Despite the recent rains and unusually cool weather carrying us into mid-May, the summer's humidity is already present in damp tendrils on the neck or light beads of sweat on the brow at 3pm. Kinda makes you wish the beach were a little closer.

In Texas, those who don't go to Galveston for the beach tend to head south - Port Aransas, Rockport, Corpus Christi.... Some go deeper, down toward South Padre Island and Port Isabel. Me, I go east to Interstate 10, then drive through Houston, past the Texas-Louisiana border, take a right on Route 27 in Sulphur, and head to Holly Beach, "the Cajun Riviera." Sulphur's nondescript Anywhere U.S.A. look is quickly shed as it transforms itself into fertile swampland south of Hackberry, where the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge begins and ends just above Holly Beach, which ain't no Riviera, by the way. It's a tar-globbed stretch along the Gulf of Mexico with equal parts sand and crunched-up shells, but I love the way it defies you to accept its scrubby appeal.

I've driven Route 27 many times, at all hours of the day and night - one of my favorite bars in the world is on that road. More than once, I've left the Corner Lounge in Carlyss and driven down toward Holly Beach only to stop at the refuge in the middle of the night, just to sit in the parking lot and listen to the sounds of the Louisiana night. The humid salt air hangs heavily and the stillness is occasionally broken by menacingly loud splashes and odd barking sounds - alligators. During the day, the refuge just looks like flat, non-descript marshland until you walk down the trail where even the lily pads seem to have a life of their own. One night I sat there listening to a tape of the Fabulous Thunderbirds performing "Diddy-Wah-Diddy," and it felt as if the song were meant just for that moment in time. "...Ain't no town, ain't no city...."

I was tickled to see my own little Diddy-wah-diddy so lovingly detailed in The Smithsonian Guides to Natural America: The South-Central States (Random House/Smithsonian, $19.95 paper). This region-specific guidebook covers not only parks, wilderness preserves, nature sanctuaries, and scenic spots in Texas and Louisiana, but also Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi. It's not quite day-trip territory but definitely fun for two- or three-day jaunts around the region.

It's not exactly a pocket guide, either. These books feature comprehensive text, gorgeous full-color photographs, and maps in lavish detail, printed on high-quality glossy paper that renders them just a little to heavy to toss into a backpack. If you're looking for a motel or restaurant, grab a lightweight AAA guidebook - the wealth of other information enclosed, however, is impressively presented, imparting little gems of knowledge likely to stay with you as you explore these areas of beauty. From armadillos to alligators, chiseled canyons to open plains, forest trails to river byways, the SGNA is worth its weight in golden images. The only thing I didn't find out was where Diddy-wah-diddy really is. Perhaps another road trip is necessary.... - Margaret Moser

Surfing culture is so rife with the idea of the perfect wave that even the most casual observer is familiar with it. Surfers, followed by camera crews, venture to the most remote spots in the world to find the liquid grail. Somewhere it is always endless summer. Somewhere, a wave rises so high that to ride it and to capture it on film will establish the surfer, the photographer, and the curling water forever in surfing history. There are dangers in this quest to ride waves as tall as office buildings, and in Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn (Scribner, $24.95 hard), the threat is not just from the cascade of icy, silver water curling toward unforgiving rocks. It surges from within the soul of the men who pursue this dream long past the time to quit.

Jack Fletcher is a surf photographer who has washed ashore to a filthy garage apartment and a job chronicling inland weddings. He copes with the physical and psychic pain of his photo purgatory by chain-eating pain pills. A summons arrives from a magazine: He is to travel to Northern California to chronicle legendary surfer Drew Harmon riding the Big Foot of waves, Heart Attacks. His only chance of redemption requires snapping a fantastic picture in wintertime while floating in nasty surf, contending with prima donna psycho surfers and avoiding the homicidal Native Americans, whose reservation abuts the ocean. A local boy dies in the first attempt to surf and shoot Heart Attacks and the war is on. Some dope-smoking locals kidnap Harmon's wife, the young surfers want to kill Fletcher, and Drew Harmon has more baggage than a 747.

Nunn is a master at capturing the feel of riding a wave, even for those who have only drunk salt water into their lungs while attempting the sport. He imbues the roiling ocean with a feral living presence, describing a set of waves as "a procession of unnamed beasts... skulking in the blue light." Dogs of Winter is Nunn's fourth book, and the second that deals with the culture of the West Coast dream. While not a genre writer (surf novels would be a very small section), Nunn could do worse than to explore this milieu in the future.

- Dennis Nowlin

There's nothing like reading about the fictional excesses of someone else's life to make your own transgressions seem so insignificant.

In Sins by F. Sionil José (Random House, $22 hard) these fictional excesses belong to protagonist Don Carlos Cobello. An unrepentant rake, scoundrel, bandit, and sugar baron, Don Carlos hasn't let old age bring him virtue. All Don Carlos regrets is that his waywardness has left him in poor health. He is the thief who isn't at all sorry he stole, but is terribly sorry he got caught. Don Carlos now has only the use of his memories.

Sins opens just prior to the Second World War on the Cobello family plantation outside Manila. As members of the Filipino aristocracy, the Cobellos hold themselves apart from the native Indio population. Proud descendants of European stock, the Cobello family has achieved position, power, and prestige through repeatedly ingratiating themselves with the current ruling faction. Through the actions of his family, Don Carlos has all of the advantages a young boy could want: wealth, power, a family-owned syphilis-infected brothel, and a willing and complacent sister. It seems that the only thing that money can't buy Don Carlos is a conscience. He seduces many women, beginning with his acquiescent sister Corito. Their diseased lifelong union produces a daughter, Angela. Don Carlos also has a son via a beloved servant girl.

As in Ibsen, the sins of the father are transferred to the children. These same sins are then returned a thousand-fold to Don Carlos: His own son and daughter find each other irresistible.

Sins is a highly visual novel. Formative moments in the life of Don Carlos aren't the result of something he has read, they are a result of something he has felt. The women are described in radiant detail. And Sins is a troubling novel not only because of the incest, but also because the reality which the novel reflects is too strong, too accurate, and too real.

What is unsettling is that Sins is an internal dialogue of a rich man who did nothing to earn his riches, and accomplished nothing with them. It has been said that a society is known by the heroes it crowns, and our society's heroes are rich. They are either admired because they are rich, or they become rich because they are admired, and F. Sionil José powerfully attacks our fiscal hero-worship with the sad story of Don Carlos. While José is well-known in his native Philippines, he is only beginning to be read in the United States. About damn time.

- Anna Hanks

Hey, William Bennett, pipe down! Newt, put a lid on it! You and those other sanctimonious Jeremiahs have had your chance to whine and bluster about the Net and computer games and MTV and the like, how they're rapidly turning the youth of today into depraved slaves to controlled substances and - heh heh, heh heh - sex. Well, now it's time for someone else to have a say, someone who can cut through all your hysteria and fear-mongering about the World Wide Web and e-mail and cable TV and the other forms of "new media" introduced in the past 20 years to remind us that civilization has weathered the appearance of new forms of communication before and that your dire warnings about the dangers of today's digital culture are the same lame ones shouted 40 years ago over comic books and rock & roll.

That someone is Jon Katz, a writer who has done hard time in both print media (newspapers ranging from The Dallas Times-Herald to The New York Times, Rolling Stone and New York magazines) and television (CBS Morning News) and is currently on the front lines of the online revolution as an editor for Wired. Katz is a fresh breeze in the now stale debate on digital culture. Instead of clouding the air with ominous threats of a dystopian future, Virtuous Reality (Random House, $21 hard) calmly (well, pretty calmly) looks at our past and present, drawing analogous situations from history - remember the printing press? - and citing numerous books and studies which support the idea that the roots of modern violence and crime have a lot more to do with poverty, joblessness, racial inequality, and the availability of guns and drugs than the exhortations of a gangsta rapper or the mindless mayhem of Doom.

Katz is not immune to a bit of hot-air railing - he devotes an entire chapter to ripping the pious Mr. Bennett a new one - but by and large he's a clear-eyed advocate of common sense and Common Sense. He wants us to remember being young; that mere exposure to violent or sexual images won't automatically corrupt a sensible, moral person, however young; that young people have rights, too; that a little trust with them goes a long way. He also wants us to remember Thomas Paine and the book in which that patriot proclaimed his belief in a strong public voice, with every member of society speaking out: challenging authority, shaping policy, creating a better world. Katz paints a picture of Paine today, online, harassing multinational corporations and debating the issues of the day with people across the globe. It's a powerful image and one that argues for us to get with the program, not try to have it deleted. - Robert Faires

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