A wistful, elegiac remembrance of a surfing adolescence mingled with a search for life's authentic experiences that marks poet Ziolkowski (Our Son of the Arson, not reviewed) as old for his years.
The waves are young Thad’s “pagan cathedral of ocean and sky” at a time when the rest of the world is unsteady under his feet. It’s the late 1960s, his parents have divorced, he has a touch-and-go relationship with his mom’s new boyfriend, and he’s been uprooted to Florida, where friends are in short supply. Ziolkowski does finally connect with a few boys, but the ocean seems to wash away all his difficulties in a spray of salt water. Riding the surf sees him through rough times with his now-stepfather, the usual adolescent social tribulations, and a bad moment with drugs (of which he subsequently steers clear). The surf also ushers him into a new group of older friends who accept him because he’s a fast learner. As he manages to keep his balance on land and water, other members of Thad’s family are slipping away: his younger brother to dope and anger, his stepfather to disappointment and anger. His mother remains a vital source of comfort, but he judges her ineffectual. Ziolkowski lays this before the reader in shorn, unhurried sentences that bite. When he learns he must move to Kansas, an ex-surfer he idolizes, fresh out of jail on a dope-selling charge, gives him important advice: Forget surfing, get into learning. These words may sound hackneyed in the retelling, but they come fresh as a daisy from Ziolkowski's pen. He follows that advice, which helps him all the more when his family starts dying in rude circumstances.
Reflecting on his hometown, the author could be thinking of his time on the water: “Shielded for a certain period, suffused with beauty and with subtler blessings, innocence, a certain sweetness . . . out of time.” Amen.