By Nathan Myers
This is a book review. Kinda. A recommendation, actually. But I keep telling everyone lately, you should read The Dog Stars. It has nothing to do with surfing.
Peter Heller called me in the SURFING Mag offices a few years ago and says, "I just started surfing yesterday and I'm going to write a book about going from total beginning to getting towed into a 50-foot wave at Jaws. Do you have any advice for me?"
I did a quick bit of math in my head: let's see, a 46-year-old beginner with a background in kayaking wants to start tow-surfing Jaws… yes, I should advise him to go for it.
When he explained he was a writer for Outside and National Geographic, I figured there was a decent chance he was recording this, possible making me liable for his impending death. So I said: "Don't do it, mister. Anyone can let go of a rope – you might even survive the experience, but the Jet Ski is still a bigger hero than you."
Even through the receiver, I could hear the wind going out of his sails.
"Maybe you should pick a more realistic goal," I said, "like getting barreled. I think you'd like it."
Mr. Heller once again became excited about the process ahead of him. How could you not be? It's surfing. He hung up the phone, drove a van down to Mexico and disappeared forever. I forgot all about him.
He wrote a book about his journey called "Kook" and I kinda half sorta read it (mainly looking for the part where I tell him not to do it – don't bother, it's not in there). I generally have trouble reading "surf books" because it just feels like work, and I actually enjoy reading. Books called "Kook" about learning to surf, well, my boss doesn’t make me read them. Whew. (If you’ve read Kook, please offer a review in the comments.)
Last week, I picked up Peter's latest book during a long airport layover. The Dog Stars is his first attempt at fiction, a story of post apocalyptic survival. Not the most original topic, but Heller's prose are really awesome. I read the book cover to cover on my flight and am now recommending it to you. The Dog Stars – super good read for your next boat trip or long flight. Feeling inspired, I figured I owed the old "kook" a call to see if he was still surfing?
SURFING: Peter, did you end up catching that 50-footer? Or getting barreled? Sorry, I should probably know this…
PETER HELLER: Never got tubed. But I realized that what you'd said about tow in, and maybe not earning your big ride — I decided that resonated. The six months of learning down the coast of Mexico climaxed in riding a double plus overhead wave — not quite a tube — at Barra de la Cruz. It was about a 12-foot face, heavy and fast, and it blew my mind. First that I actually caught it, then that I rode it, then the speed, the pressure off the lip — one of the most thrilling things I've ever done.
SURFING: What led to you going on that adventure anyway?
HELLER: I surfed for a few days in Huntington Beach and just got absolutely hooked, the way we do. I guess for most people that happens at age nine or something. I was 46. I just wanted to figure out how I could keep surfing, keep the learning curve steep, so I came up with the brilliant idea of writing a book.
SURFING: So what was the highlight of that process?
HELLER: I think for me, truly, was just being out every morning at that time of day. I always tried to get out while it was still dark so I might have a little time alone with the waves, and we all know how that is out there. A sea turtle, the cooler air, the birds diving, the first light over the Sierra. It was like going to church every day. Catching waves was really the icing. Frigging great icing, too.
SURFING: I take it you're still surfing?
HELLER: Yep. Spent the month of March in Mexico and most of May.
SURFING: How was Kook received?
HELLER: It sold a bunch of copies and I still get emails from people who loved it. The most meaningful ones are from guys in their sixties, lifelong surfers, who found something there that really sang for them. I am terribly honored by those letters.
SURFING: To be honest, I had trouble getting past the title. Do you think the mainstream surf media overlooked your book on principle?
HELLER: I don't know about the mainstream surf world. It moves a little fast for me. I know about getting out early and pushing the comfort level and doing my best every day, and then writing about it as truly as I can. That seemed to connect with a lot of surfers. I started out as a true kook, and I think having beginner's mind — not being afraid to mess up — is a good way to be in any endeavor.
SURFING: I think you're right. Sometimes the mainstream surf can be pretty close-minded. I secretly yearn for the apocalypse – apparently we're just two months away; then I can call you for tips on surviving it.
HELLER: Happy to help. I still owe you one.
SURFING: Did learning to surf in any way inspire you to write The Dog Stars?
HELLER: Oh, sure. The Dog Stars is in many ways about a man trying to stay connected to the things he really loves in a very harsh world. Those things are mostly nature. I think that's exactly what a lot of us do every morning when we paddle out.
[So here's my once-a-year book recommendation. Read The Dog Stars on your next surf trip. You'll be less likely to drop in on Peter after you do.]