Have you ever stopped to consider the many resemblances between the sentence and the surf ride?
Done well, they are both things of beauty, provoking the awe and admiration of the less accomplished, but they can go horribly wrong with even the slightest misstep. The completion rate is generally low. The wait in between is often long and tortuous. I tend to think that if you manage one good one a day that’s a decent effort.
Most notably of all, though, stylistic imperfections can be redeemed, in the eyes of judges/readers, by ensuring there’s an exclamation point at the end. In light of this last similarity, we might say that Chas Smith is the Adriano de Souza of surf writing. Some might think this comparison a slight, but I feel sure that Smith, like me, is very fond of the plucky Brazilian. (A “plucky Brazilian” — that sounds like a painful trip to the beauty salon.)
Chas Smith is the co-founder of the website BeachGrit, author of the Paul Evans-starring Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell, and one of the English language’s greatest exponents of the exclamation mark. His latest book is called Cocaine + Surfing: A Sordid History of Surfing’s Greatest Love Affair.
'Either/Or' by Søren Kierkegaard
“I love some Kierkegaard! I’m too dumb to know anything about him but I love just to stare at his words. I did a semester abroad at Oxford and didn’t read any of the books I was assigned, and instead I discovered Albert Camus. I thought I was the first person in the world ever to read Camus, and Camus talked a bunch about Kierkegaard, so I followed the rabbit trail to him.
“His idea of the absurd — and I don’t know if I ever understood it correctly — always made me smile. I thought that somehow he was plotting a big joke in philosophy, though I doubt that he was. And truly the most absurd, Sisyphean thing a man can do is surf!
“Either/Or is written from two different perspectives — it’s about looking at life aesthetically versus looking at life morally, and how we’re going to judge the value in life. I’m an aesthete over an ethicist every day of the week!
'Black Mischief' by Evelyn Waugh
“The funniest book I’ve ever read has to be Black Mischief by old Evelyn Waugh. I imagine someone writing something like that today, something that plays on racial stereotypes and tropes… Evelyn Waugh wrote with such a wonderful light touch that it feels like he could almost write anything, even grossly inappropriate things — obviously as parody — and get away with it. He was such a good writer that even in the era of social outrage he could write something like Black Mischief — I mean, he could write about NFL players taking the knee before football games — and probably still get away with it.
"Waugh wrote with such a wonderful light touch that it feels like he could almost write anything, even grossly inappropriate things, and get away with it"
“It’s not that long but it’s very, very funny. I think I’ve read, at this point, everything that Waugh did. I went on a big Waugh kick for a while.
'Confederacy of Dunces' by John Kennedy Toole
“I really love a good turn of phrase. I don’t think I do a very good job — I think my humour is just like a dull hammer most of the time. I remember Derek Reilly, when I was writing for Stab forever ago, saying to me that not every single line should be funny in a piece — just have one funny line, and build the thing around it. I probably struggle to do that, I probably try to be too funny, but I think I’ve gotten better than I used to be, when I used to just try and hammer jokes the whole time.
“I look back on BeachGrit stuff that I remember was funny the day I wrote it, but I’ll look back two weeks later and it’s no longer funny. Humour is ephemeral in a way, it belongs in the moment, and so to put to something funny in a book, something whose funniness is not dependent on time, is a real genuine skill. I think that’s why it’s so rare in books.
“Another funny book, where I was LOLing all day long, is Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius J Reilly and his valves, the scenes, him selling his hot dogs, the gay guy in New Orleans, all of it… I just thought, ‘Oh man, this guy really is a comic genius.’
'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' by Joseph Campbell
“I wrote the pitch [for Cocaine + Surfing] as a total lark, and when it was actually time to write it, I was like, ‘There’s no book here! It’s just two words!’ So I was really struggling.
“One of my least favourite ever pieces of writing is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. I always hated the concept — it just always seemed so obvious and ham-fisted. Of course a lot of books have this arc with a hero and his journey — why make it all weird and metaphysical? So every chapter of Cocaine + Surfing is a chapter from the 'hero’s journey' with me as the hero, on the hero’s journey, in search of cocaine and surfing.
'The Naked and the Dead' by Norman Mailer
“I loved to death every single one of the ‘New Journalists’. Hunter Thompson was probably my gateway. Initially I didn’t like Thompson, I thought he’d just found a voice — you know, drugs and mayhem — that to me seemed cheap and easy. But as I read more I fell in love with him, and from there with Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion — I really fell down the ‘New Journalist’ hole and am probably still there. Those are my favourite writers on earth today, still. Narrative non-fiction is what I write because that’s what I love to read.
“The Naked and the Dead is actually a novel but it’s based on Mailer’s experiences. I really like that, too — the blending between fact and fiction. The dumb magician, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller, was asked the other day about something Trump had reportedly said, and he replied, ‘I know what I remember, but I can’t even trust myself. I’m a storyteller and all storytellers are liars.’ And I really like that idea.
“The difference between fiction and non-fiction…? If you’re telling the story, automatically I think it’s getting warped through your own perspective, so who’s to know what’s true or not?”