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Beach Grit

Dead: the world’s greatest surf writer!

Derek Rielly

by Derek Rielly

"So fucken slick," says Nick Carroll.

Depending on your love of literature you may, or may not, know, or care, that Tom Wolfe has died, aged eighty-eight. 

That name mean anything?

If you’re a fan of the better surf writers, Nick Carroll and so on, you owe a little something to the father of New Journalism, a style of writing that brought the writer, and the dramatic techniques favoured by the novelist, into straight journalism. Its arrival was as exciting as colour television.

Years back, when I got my first job at Surfing Life, I figured I better learn how to write (I’d cribbed stories out of old Tracks magazines and presented ’em as samples of my work) and I’d remembered Nick had listed his favourite writers: Hunter ST, Earn Hemingway, Ev Waugh, John Steinbeck and…Tom Wolfe.

Over the course of the year, I read most of their books. Hunter for gonz, Hemingway for muscular writing, Waugh for satire, Steinbeck for storytelling and Tom Wolfe for reporting.

And exclamation marks. Want to know the source of our exclamation marks? Blame Tom Wolfe! Of course! (And the use of “Of course!”)

And, in case you didn’t know, Tom Wolfe got into a little surf writing himself. In 1968 he wrote an essay called The Pump House Gang (which was included in a book of essays of the same name) where he wrote about a gang of La Jolla surfers.

An excerpt:

The [surfers] are not exactly off in a world of their own, they are and they aren’t. What it is, they float right through the real world, but it can’t touch them. They do these things, like the time they went to Malibu, and there was this party in some guy’s apartment, and there wasn’t enough legal parking space for everybody, and so somebody went out and painted the red curbs white and everybody parked. Then the cops came. Everybody ran out. At [a party] in Manhattan Beach . . . somebody decided to put a hole through one wall, and everybody else decided to see if they could make it bigger. Everybody was stoned out of their hulking gourds, and it got to be about 3:30 a.m. and everybody decided to go see the riots. These were the riots in Watts. The Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union were all saying, WATTS NO-MAN’S LAND, but naturally nobody believed that. Watts was a blast, and the Pump House gang was immune to the trembling gourd panic rattles of the LA Times.

According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, after the story came out La Jolla locals spray-painted “Tom Wolfe is a dork” across the cement beachfront pump house structure that gives the story its title.

Surfer magazine later called “The Pump House Gang” a “bit of low-rent pop sociology,” but acknowledged that the Windansea surfers, who once dressed up as Nazi storm troopers and goose-stepped down to the beach for a laugh, were in fact viewed as “savages” by the rest of California surf society.

Earlier today, I asked Nick Carroll, whose early work used many of Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism techniques and whose influence across surf writing is without equal, why he was so into Wolfe.

“I just got excited by that whole genre of magazine writing of the 1960s, it felt a bit musical to me in a way, like an injection of flow and energy and emotion into the culture and how it was being observed. Like it was putting new things at centre stage. Above all it felt American to me, like it was describing a bigger and more viscerally entertaining world. So much lively curiosity!

“Plus so fucken slick and skilled with the language. Writers observing closely and doing the best work of their lives.
“I really paid attention, especially to Wolfe’s introduction to the collected volume, The New Journalism, which included a lot of the best operators in the field. It’s basically a journalism primer. Like you don’t have to do four years of “Journalism” at Uni, you can just read that, then go and practice it.
“I’ve since done a lot more reading and you can see New Journalism going on in writing for many years before the New Journalism. I think almost all good writing is partly journalism, because almost all good writing relies on the observant eye and ear. I’ve also seen how journalists like Truman Capote with In Cold Blood and John Hersey with his amazing account of the Hiroshima atom bombing and its aftermath kind of outclassed most of the New Journalists, Wolfe included.
The Pump House Gang was interesting but not as interesting as some of the car racing stuff. The Right Stuff was all time I thought.
“The big thing about Wolfe, Gay Talese, and most of the NJs is that they were still mostly classically trained journos, they were never post-modern about things, they were actually interested and curious in the subject, not just in their reaction to the subject. They wanted to get hold of both — to describe what people were actually up to. Not just what they thought those people were up to, or would like them to be up to, which is the modern “commentary” trend. You can’t beat actual interest in people.
“In surf writing now, I think it’s actually a pretty dynamic time but I don’t see much Wolfean prose, the detailed observation and curiosity isn’t quite there in a lot of otherwise very entertaining stuff. It’s a fucking high bar though, and surfing’s not as new as it used to be! It’s hard to find anything new to write about.”