The day after Mick Fanning wins his first world title, Dane Reynolds is standing in a nearly vacant Ventura parking lot seeing something in the waves that only someone like him can see. There is a bite of cold in the air, spelled occasionally by a patch of sun moving through the clouds. The surf is small; the vestiges of a late-season south showing themselves only occasionally in the form of small, set-wave rights that swing wide of the main peak and run as though they're on a track along a cobblestone bottom.

The world around him wants him to care about the ASP World Tour, about being on "the cutting edge" of modern surfing, but Dane Reynolds wants to make sure that he's reading the right writers.

It is late afternoon and the sun is dying and Dane does not want to be surfing at this pedestrian wave. He simply wants to ride a new board, and this is the only place where he can do it. A single surfer sits in the water. There are only two other cars in the parking lot, but Dane is moving quickly, turning out his wetsuit, his hair combed by chance, a five-day stubble shading his face.

Within minutes, he's suited up, hoping to get away from the inevitable, and it's already too late for that: He is stopped no fewer than five times on his way to the lineup by people who want to let him know that they're excited that he's qualified for next year's World Tour.

Each time, Dane graciously replies that yes, he's "psyching" on the tour next year, such that by the time we've made it to the peak, he's developed a rhythm to the delivery of what can only be taken as a false enthusiasm.

For the time being, we paddle out to the peak almost dry, and sit in the ocean in the late fall and remark on the water's chill.

Again, in the water, a surfer paddles up to Dane and comments on his qualifying, lets him know that he'll be watching him next year, sending Dane into his now-familiar acceptance.

A set comes and everyone paddles, but Dane, in position, lets it pass through. A bird passes by. Dane hangs off the side of his board, bobbing in the water, enjoying the space between the waves. I sit 10 yards away and try impossibly to be the one guy not bothering him. Then he turns to me, unbidden, and says something equally impossible:

"You ever read John Fante?" he asks.

I respond that yes, I've read Fante.

He pauses again.

"Who else should I be reading?"

The world around him wants him to care about the ASP World Tour, about being on "the cutting edge" of modern surfing, but Dane Reynolds wants to make sure that he's reading the right writers.

I throw out a few names and unexpectedly, I'm in a conversation about great modern writers with a great modern surfer.

On the inside, the 16-year-old kids pretend not to be noticing Dane's every move, the way he sits on the board, how he kicks out, what he looks for in a wave.

"Think you could give me a reading list?" Dane asks, and I say that I'd be happy to.

Eventually, another set comes, and he picks off the best wave, and proceeds to do what everybody in this lineup and the world knows that Dane Reynolds can do on a wave. He tears it apart, this tiny thing that the rest of us surfers are floundering to even ride serviceably. He goes through a series of swooping bottom turns and precise cutbacks, unleashing a fan out the back on every turn, sucking the marrow out of the thing in a way so seamless and fluid that it seems to mark a categorical difference between what he's doing in the water and what the rest of us are up to—and then he paddles back out, waiting again for the wide ones, looking out to sea.

Here's Dane Reynolds: A polite, intelligent, thoughtful, confused 22-year-old kid who doesn't know what he wants out of life anymore than he knows what I want him to say. He is sitting on the garage floor of the condo he bought when he was 19, applying sponsor logos to the prototype Channel Islands surfboard that, when perfected, will carry his name and be mass-marketed to the public as "the board that Dane Reynolds rides."

We spent a day together last week—me, him, his manager, his girlfriend, Al Merrick and his two dogs—and either because of or in spite of this, I walked away feeling as though I didn't really have any idea who he was. So I'm back today, in the absence of the manager and the rest of the crew, to spend some more time.

We are bullshitting, and I ask him a question: Out of everybody in the surfing world, is there anybody that he looks to and thinks, "that guy's doing it right."