Surfing historian Matt Warshaw eviscerates Paul Theroux novel Under The Wave in hilariously barbed essay, “He has broken the first rule of his craft, which is to care enough about your subject to want to get inside it, wear it like a skin if possible, eat it and be eaten by it!”

"Hard pass on Theroux and his new book…"

Under the Wave at Waimea, Paul Theroux’s new novel, comes out this week. I’ve only read excerpts and some early reviews, so jumping in here with tiny fists balled and swinging feels premature or petty or unfair or all three.

On the other hand, I’m finding it harder and harder these days to make it through an entire book, any book (I loved the first half of French Exit, however, and parts of Deacon King Kong had me in raptures), so finishing Under the Wave as a precondition for critiquing it is probably a non-starter.

Our leathery but handsome protagonist is Joe Sharkey, aka “the Shark,” a fading 62-year-old haole surf legend living on the North Shore with his much-younger new girlfriend. While driving home from a bar one night, Sharkey hits and kills a homeless man on a bike. Joe evades criminal charges, then he and girlfriend set off to investigate the dead man’s past and to help Joe (in the words of the flap copy) “find vitality and refuge in the waves again.”

The book’s opening paragraph:

The one wild story that everyone believed about Joe Sharkey was not true, but this was often the case with big-wave riders. It was told he had eaten magic mushrooms on a day declared Condition Black and dropped left down a forty-five-foot wave one midnight under the white light of a full moon at Waimea Bay, the wave freaked with clawed rags of blue foam. He smashed his board on the inside break called Pinballs and, unable to make it to shore against the riptide, he swam five miles up the coast, where he was found in the morning, hallucinating on the sand. More proof that he was a hero; that he surfed like a rat on acid.

At which point I was already leaning negative on Under the Wave because we all know that is Jock Sutherland’s story, more or less—he and Theroux are longtime North Shore friends—and why not just do a slightly fictionalized take on Jock, who is infinitely compelling, and spare us the manslaughter and resultant tension-conflict-resolution drama?

Anyway, here are my two issues with Under the Wave.

First, as the title and cover art make clear, surfing in this book is often front and center—but it is surfing as conquest and big-wave trophy hunting, from Waimea to Cape Town to “the water monster” (more commonly known as Nazaré) in Portugal.

Conquest, for me, is always a dead-end choice for a surf book. Real-life big-wave conquest is a thing, yes, but it is almost always a surfing byproduct, not the main point. Even for big-wave incurables, surfing is a through-line, a horizontal rather than spiking presence, an often-beautiful drone connecting one year to the next, like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on loop but with some livelier bits from Here Comes the Warm Jets dropped in now and then.

Dan Duane captures this idea perfectly in his book Caught Inside.

“Surfing falls outside the narratives of death and change,” Duane writes. “One goes out, comes in, surfs in circles. A surf session is [just] a small occurrence outside the linear march of time. You can talk about carving deep, then gouging the lip, but even if the listener can visualize [all of this], it still doesn’t make a story.”

Granted, Theroux’s book is not really about riding huge waves, but about a man who rides huge waves coming to terms with the fact that he’s been a selfish prick his whole adult life. I do not concede my above point, but still. Sharkey spends a fair bit of time in detailed reflection about waves he has ridden and their epicness. But Duane’s take is the right one: “While paddling back out [after] a glorious ride, I noticed that I couldn’t remember anything specific about the wave.”

The second thing about Under the Wave is the degree to which Theroux himself is not really interested in surfing or surfers. The language, the surf-action descriptions, the surfer’s interiority—every time he reaches for surf-world authenticity the results feel borrowed or dashed-off or best-guessed-at.

The fault here is not that Theroux is an outsider. That’s fine. Some of the best takes on the sport have been made by outsiders. But the writer has to care enough, be interested enough, to make something previously unknown to him or her come to life.

Non-surfing New York writer Cintra Wilson was taken to task for the level of snark she brought to what I still think of as one of the best and funniest surf-related essays ever written, “Jesus Christ, Personal Friend of Surfing,” and fair enough, she does at times come at her subject claws-first and grinning. At one point Wilson eviscerates poor Shea Lopez for not being able to think of anything he would change about the world tour. But immediately following, she offers this: “Anyone who has fallen in love with a group of uniformed firemen at the supermarket—noticing their polite, jokey teamwork and easy, 100-proof manliness while they shop together for the station—would probably like being around surfers. All the petty parts of [their] brains seem blasted away by the overpowering waves and they have the weird, gentle majesty of giraffes or monks. Something about living enslaved to an element like fire or water, I suppose, gives them that 1940s Royal Air Force, movie-hero kind of self-possession. Anyway, I felt dirty and mean after talking to Shea Lopez, and kind of sick with admiration for him.”

Surfers should be laughed at, eye-rolled, and praised in roughly equal measure. And always remember, that surfers meanwhile will be laughing at you, and justly so, even if they are whittling away their lives in pursuit of waves. This is a difficult set of things to keep in mind while writing. Wilson threw herself to the task, enjoyed herself tremendously, and thus her surfers can believably and effortlessly shape-shift from lunkheads to monks to giraffes to firemen.

In contrast, Theroux’s characters, while in surfer mode, are professionally-written cliches. I’m not saying Theroux has dishonored surfing. Or rather, I’m not saying that Theroux has only dishonored surfing. I’m saying he has broken the first rule of his craft, which is to care enough about your subject to want to get inside it, wear it like a skin if possible, eat it and be eaten by it—the way Theroux did with Mosquito Coast, the way he did during his incandescent pissing match with fellow writer VS Naipaul.

Otherwise you’re left with the main character going left at Waimea straight into Pinballs, like a rat on acid.

PS: I just opened the new Surfer’s Journal to find Jamie Brisick’s interview with Theroux. Brisick opens by asking about the inspiration for Under the Wave, and here is Theroux’s response:

You might laugh, but I remember the day and time when I made the decision. I was riding my bike from Haleiwa along Kam Highway one hot day and came to the small bridge near Laniakea. The road is narrow there, so I decided to walk it, staying close to the rail of the bridge. I looked down at the creek bed under the bridge and saw a woman lying naked on a surfboard in the sand, her legs parted, and a naked man frantically making love to her. The woman’s face was contorted in ecstasy. I wanted to linger, but I figured they needed their privacy. And I thought, Wonderful—they’ve spent the morning surfing together, and now, as a culmination, they’re rutting like mad. This sort of summed up the consuming passion of surfing.

Yuck and gross, and I’ve made a decision—hard pass on Theroux and his new book, even if they send me a free copy.

(Editor’s note: This essay first appeared as a missive to subscribers of Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing. Join for three bucks a month or thirty bucks a year.)

Chas v Ashton, happier days.

Breaking: Ashton Goggans’ girlfriend avenges Stab editor beau at event celebrating the healing of trauma, awakening of power; levels toxic surf journalist with fusillade of devastating zingers!

"You are a clown. You dress like an eight-year-old. Look at your striped shirt. That's what eight-year-olds wear. You are stupid. Look at your face. It's dumb" etc.

Well I’ll be darned. Fate found me, Saturday afternoon, in unfamiliar territory. A dear friend, brilliant woman, best-selling author had just published her much-anticipated book on how to heal trauma, awaken power, use it for good and a large outdoor book reading, celebration had been planned.

North County, San Diego, as you may or may not know, has a vibrant yoga, health and wellness, progressive spirituality scene, not unlike Australia’s Byron Bay, with all the trappings and flourishes. Burning sage etc. Wide brimmed hats.

Self-betterment a constant goal, consciously pursued.

Wonderful, I don’t doubt, but also not my own scene and so it was with some reluctance that I shuffled toward the event, on my wife’s arm, light patchouli wafting in a cool breeze.

I wondered if there would be any cocktails on offer as we pushed past the desk selling books into a courtyard ringed with tents selling crystals, organic açaí bowels, a woman giving single needle tattoos. My wife split off, seeing friends. I wandered to the back, near a vintage Volkswagen bus that had been converted into quaint sitting space.

Hard kombucha was on offer.

Having no other option, I fished a can out of the cute ice-chest, sipped the dull bitter and marveled at the size of the crowd. So many milling in flowy calf-length dresses, oversized sunglasses, wide-brimmed hat, linen pants, dancing barefoot to an acoustic duo who would alternately burn trauma in a clay bowl, handcrafted by an indigenous man in Baja and play uplifting Eagles covers.

A crowd any author would be jealous to draw.

I saw a wonderful colleague from my days at Surfing magazine and we reminisced while also chatting about the future and general state of premium subscription surf content.

I saw a BeachGrit friend, standing in the middle of the courtyard, left the Volkswagen bus’s fender, shuffled over, and we reminisced about great moments in the history of surf podcasts. How surf mats are the future and would have arrived sooner had Mark Thomson not assaulted onetime world number two Jodie Cooper.

An announcement went up, the reading would begin soon, and as I turned to make my way to the stage but was stopped by a slightly quavering but still strong voice somewhere behind me.

“Are you Chas Smith?”

I turned to see a woman in re-purposed from work to “work” overalls, oversized sunglasses, wide-brimmed hat standing the appropriate six feet away and answered, “Yes.”

“Fuck you,” she said voice losing its quaver, only strong. “Fuck you.”

I am used to this greeting at this stage of my career in surf journalism but not it expecting at an outdoor reading of a book, celebration, detailing how to heal trauma, awaken power, use it for good and my face must have mirrored my confusion.

She continued.

“Fuck you. You harassed me and my husband online and got your trolls to harass us too. Fuck you.”

Amazement washed over me as the realization dawned and I uttered, “You’re Ashton Gogganses girlfriend?”

“Fuck you,” she responded while taking a few steps backward and raising both her middle fingers toward me.

“Fuck you.”

My unfortunate reflex was to break out in laughter, a laughter so full-bodied that it caused me to double up and gasp for breath.

She turned and marched back whence she had come, a tent selling wide-brimmed hats. Her tent, apparently, and her hats.

Not knowing quite what to do, I shuffled back to the stage, chortling like a fool, just in time to catch the reading.

It was a revelation, dear friend, brilliant woman, best-selling author speaking on how to summon inner animalistic forces to crush hurt. How to overcome harm and how our experience, once owned, can be harnessed for good.

How we can all help each other on this path.

I had never been so instantly, robustly, chastised and shame washed over me like a sound bath.

It was time to go.

“I hope your trauma has been healed…” I said to Ashton Goggans’ girlfriend, or maybe wife, on the way out, since her hat tent was near the exit, truly meaning it.

“Fuck you,” she said but now she also had a hat selling friend, a handsome little man with white teeth also wearing a wide-brimmed hat and oversized sunglasses who started bouncing around like a hip-hop star.

“Fuck you,” he said. “You are a clown. You dress like an eight-year-old. Look at your striped shirt. That’s what eight-year-olds wear. You are stupid. Look at your face. It’s dumb. Your pants are not cool. You are the worst writer I have ever read. You suck and are stupid.”

Then the Li’l Haberdasher turned on my wife, on whom’s arm I was, and said, “Look at your purple hair. It’s stupid.”


My wife, organic as the day is long, had grown up in Seattle’s rougher side and come up through the ranks of snowboarding’s early derelict years. Putting anything that has ever happened in surfing to shame.

She had also done a year of middle school in desegregated Nashville, Tennessee and beaten up every day on the bus.

Her eyes went red and I have never heard such a salty barrage in my entire life.

Entirely vicious, traumatic, and momentarily stunning the already-traumatized, giving me enough time to, again, offer my sincere hope that they could find healing in the clay bowl, handcrafted by an indigenous man in Baja.

It was as ill-advised an offering as doubling over in laughter.

We somehow, someway, extracted ourselves, Li’l Haberdasher shouting something about Norman Mailer as we were a block away and maybe he meant it as a positive?

Hope springs eternal.

P.S. My wife forgot her Givenchy handbag near the hard kombucha station and ran back to get, enjoying seconds on Ashton Gogganses’ girlfriend and her Li’l Haberdasher.

And to think this whole business began with me trying to defend her honor. Now I can only hope the police have not been called.

More as the story develops.

Open thread: comment live day three Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic!

Door's open, boys, girls, other…  

Italo Ferreira euthanises wildcard Mick Fanning with two closeout air-revs. | Photo: WSL/Matt Dunbar

Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic Day Two: “Italo Ferreira stopped Mick Fanning stone dead; it was like watching the last Dinosaur suffocating in a mud bog somewhere!”

Wildcard Mick out, Italo continues to flame, John John Florence shaky.

Two turn combo’s, grindy heats.

Tons and tons of grindy heats.

Tons and tons of fours and fives.

By the numbers this is pure mediocrity*.

By the end of the Aussie leg we’ll be up to our eyeballs in two-turn combos and grindy heats. But that won’t matter because Australia can support 4 CT’s. What happens next year is what’s most interesting.

Newcastle works as a CT venue.

Narrabeen works as a CT venue.

Do they ditch Snapper?

Bells is locked in, likewise Margarets.

The Search event will likely go the way of the dodo unless they can backdoor their way into some Classic regional break.

Possible, but unlikely.

Australia could do six CT’s easily. The funding is there. The crowd hunger to watch live CT surfing is there. We’ll watch intermittently and live comment our arses off.

I’ve always maintained a reasonable odds outcome if Ziff dumps pro surfing is the Aussie taxpayer picking up the bones of the Tour and making a decent fist of it. Six CT’s, maybe an Indo leg, Cloudbreak and a Pipe final. It doesn’t seem so outlandish all of a sudden, after seeing the enthusiasm for pro surfing that still exists in Sydney.

They mobbed White Lightning, shades of the Kelly-gasms’ that used to shudder through crowds of teenaged girls and middle aged men alike when the GOAT in his prime strode onto the sand.

Fanning didn’t come dead last.

He made it through the elimination round with a couple of slick two-turn combos.

He came second last. Italo stopped him stone dead, it was like watching the last Dinosaur suffocating in a mud bog somewhere. The answer to the question “Who in the Top 34 can stop Mick Fanning?” was answered pretty emphatically. All of ’em.

For all the talk of the “challenge” and the pressure that Mick was going to put on his opponents Italo paddled down the beach, surfed two close-outs within five minutes of each other and did two tail-high air reverses for a pair of sixes. Smothered him for the rest of the heat like a polyester suit, the kind old Eugene might have busted out for a big night in Surfers Paradise.

Micks 9.33 heat total would not have won any of the 12 Rd of 32 heats run this afternoon. Not one.

It wasn’t much of a heat really.

For all the talk of the “challenge” and the pressure that Mick was going to put on his opponents Italo paddled down the beach, surfed two closeouts within five minutes of each other and did two tail-high air reverses for a pair of sixes. Smothered him for the rest of the heat like a polyester suit, the kind old Eugene might have busted out for a big night in Surfers Paradise. Didn’t really matter in the end, the crowd got their Fanning fix.

It also solved the much bigger problem.

What if he won?

What to do then with the old bugger? Keep wheeling him out all year? Admit a man three years retired is still better than anyone on tour at riding two-to-three-foot beachbreaks?

The whole progression narrative would then have to be dumped, we’d have to admit stagnation in performance is a status quo.

Big, big problem for the League’s story-tellers and their shills.

There were some real strugglers today.

I’ve seen Conor O’Leary making mincemeat of sloppy, sloping lefts a squillion times. Today he sat, and sat. Seventeen minutes without catching a wave is a dud strategy. Wishing and hoping is not a way to win heats.

Mikey Wright was worse in his round one heat against Toledo. He rode one wave. One single wave. You need two. If you can hold your hand up to your face and count a thumb and one more finger you have the basic heat intelligence required to be a pro surfer. One. Two. You don’t want to end up back in the QS. Who the hell knows how that will shape up now.

Leo Fioravanti seemed like a good bet for these Aussie beach break events. A pair of sixes would have done the job. He ended up with a 9.57 total which would have beaten Fanning by a beesdick but hardly anyone else. It seemed like that Pipe play-off cursed both Wright and Leo. They’ve been dismal ever since.

Jeremy Flores called bullshit on the wave quality after squeaking through his morning heat. Explaining his exaggerated claim due to the fact he “can’t get motivated to surf these kinds of waves. The reason I’m tour is to surf amazing waves with only one other guy out”.

He called for a blocking interference in his heat with Jack Robinson after Robbo paddled from one end of the beach to the other to stuff him with priority. After looking at the rule it looked clear cut to me. Robinson made no effort to surf the wave, he merely took off to block Flores. The exact situation the rule was designed to prevent. Someone in the live comments** called Robbo the new bad guy, or potential new bad guy now that Medina has become surfings new Dalai Lama.

That could be a prophetic call. I hope Flores demands, and gets, a re-surf.

Medina looked OK, but in that sense where you get he’s just warming up. His best start ever. Could easily be leading by a country mile by the time Trestles comes around. Doesn’t matter though. Still has to find a way to solve the Italo problem.

JJF also looked OK, but in a much shakier, flakier way. The intent and the flair is there. Brittle completion rate remains an issue. Against Morgan Ciblic in the Rd of 16. If Morgs gets a solid start and makes JJF drop his lollies like he did at Newy that’ll put more pressure on for Margarets. It’s a very important heat for John.

It’s pleasing when little ol’ BG influences the booth.

After a long and gruelling campaign by yours truly and other commentors, Ethan Ewing finally surfed a heat without once being compared to Andy Irons. It was one of his better CT heats. Lots of very crispy big turns.

In a hypothetical final with Italo, if he didn’t get sucked into his game, those big turns might start looking very fresh after exposure to three million air reverses. Otherwise we are going to have pucker up our little pucker holes and ready ourselves for another Italo air show win.

*What’s surprising is how well pro surfing is wearing it. Quite entertaining.

**Sorry no attribution, forgot who.

Kid Analua, Bruna, Felipe, and Felipe, Gabriel. | Photo: Quem

Third scandal rocks two-time world surfing champion Gabriel Medina as sister-in-law and wife combine in apparent feud with his mammy Simone, “I hope you reflect all the evil you are doing… Time will never come back and the trust will not be the same”

"Love is to bring you peace and happiness and not a war"

News from Brazil is the apparent feud between Gabriel Medina’s mammy Simone and his wife Yasmin and sister-in-law Bruna.

Quem reports that Bruna, who is married to Gabriel’s lil bro Felipe, has been “expelled” from the São Paulo house the couple share with step-daddy Charlie and mammy Simone ‘cause Bruna didn’t want to leave their one-year-old daughter Analua and go to work.

In a Q and A on Instagram, she wrote: “The way we left here hurt us a lot, we were left without a house, without a car. And we prefer to change cities to have a new life, with more peace, for the sake of our mental health and, especially, of our daughter, for her to grow far away of torments.”

Bruna added, to recipient unidentified, “I hope you reflect all the evil you are doing and hiding behind a farce, a character from the good. Time will never come back and the trust will not be the same,” she said.

Yasmin, Gabriel’s wife, joined in the feud.

From Quem,

Yasmin further reinforced rumors that she broke up with the surfer’s mother and stepfather by posting some outbursts on Instagram. “Three things that are not hidden for a long time: the sun, the moon and the truth. Do you know when there are things you see and think: ‘hold me so I don’t speak?’. Be patient, really,” wrote the model.

The posts would be a response to her mother-in-law, Simone Medina, who shared a message, which many considered an indirect for her son’s marriage to the model: “Love is to bring you peace and happiness and not a war, where you have to always strive to be happy “.

Very theatrical and the third scandal to rock the champ.

You’ll remember the wild speculation that Gabriel had formed a loving union with soccer superstar Neymar Jnr (“It’s not normal to see two men like this”) followed, shortly after, by the apparent split with his parents after his surprise marriage to actress and model Yasmin Brunet.

“Their (Charlie and Simone’s) fear is that after so much sacrifice, everything will fall apart because of the marriage,” said a source.

And, yet, Gabriel, who is now coached by Australian Andy King, appears happier than ever.

Gone are the flashing glances, the disagreeable tone, the tears.