‘Sweetness and Blood’: Smooth ride around world on Western tide
As a correspondent in 2005, when Cambridge Day was a print publication, Michael Scott Moore showed how events in Europe connected with what happened in Cambridge and the United States in general. Before then, when he lived here, he was that guy you saw getting on the red line with a surfboard under his arm.
He would take commuter rail up the North Shore, always with a wetsuit to handle the New England chill and slushy waters of Cape Ann and a ready explanation for the curious and amused: There’s surfing in Massachusetts. There’s surfing just about everywhere.
It makes sense, then, that his second book, just released in hardcover by Rodale, is “Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results.”
Indonesia, Germany, Morocco, the Gaza Strip, Japan — he surfs them all, and more, in writing this second book (his first nonfiction; he also has a novel, “Too Much of Nothing”), but this is not a guidebook to great waves or a smirking reveal of who’s wearing baggies under their burka. Moore combines travelogue, reportage, history and cultural analysis into nine smooth essays of novelty, character and insight.
Surfing in Munich, for instance, is done on the swift-flowing waters of the Eisbach canal, technically illegal and eminently dangerous, and the chapter in Germany is lightly haunted by fatality and a condemnation of fun-gesellschaft, the business of fun that floated in with U.S. culture. (Moore also rides the Severn Bore in England, a tidal surge that comes along every 12 hours — but if you wipe out, you can drive downriver faster than the wave and try again.) The surfing in Indonesia takes place against a background of poverty and luxury resorts and Islamic extremism versus democracy, but looks also at how Indonesians can be enthusiastic surfers despite a disturbing lack of skill as swimmers.
There’s also a bit of debunking going on. Readers meet the man who would be Moondoggie from “Gidget,” and may not enjoy the experience, and learn why a fundamental piece of surf literature, Tom Wolfe’s “The Pump House Gang,” demands a reappraisal. “The number of facts Wolfe manages to flub is astonishing,” Moore writes of a New Journalism icon who “liked to pose as a wise but hip writer who could saunter into any subculture and give the lowdown to the squares.”
Moore doesn’t need a pose. He’s been surfing since he was in his teens, and he’s able to dive into exotic settings around the world because he’s already essentially submerged in the culture. Meaning he arrives with an appreciation for the ocean and the roots of “localism,” the sometimes brutal protection of waves from “the kooks who vacation with expensive wetsuits and no instinct for waves, who bring a sense of entitlement to match their general lack of clue, who clutter up the water with slick new boards but no obvious respect for the sea — not to mention for the locals next to them.”
Having observed Moore’s surfing as well as reading his work, I can testify that both are unflashy but utterly effective. He’s not a Mark Occhilupo on the waves, nor a Wolfe on the printed page. He brings boards and readers to shore with a style that is sly and understated.
Part of his accomplishment is finding the right words, a precise, workaday poetry that manages to describe in a way that feels both wholly right and totally original, as in this look at why Hemingway loved Cuba:
The weather boils away your need for luxury. His ranch south of Havana was more than a casa particular, of course. It was a walled compound with a view of Havana from its observation tower — and a pool where Ava Gardner once swam naked — but it would have been cheaper than a comparable estate in America in the 1940s. You might say the wealth of Cuba consists not in its sugar or rum, not in its magnificent cigars, but in the sun and clear water and hot fertile land. Cuba’s brilliant yellow days promote a simple life that feels leonine.
I read that last sentence a second time just to let its perfection soak in.
His skill for observation and cutting construction comes through in his enraging but delicious takedown of Israeli security as well as in his gentler look at the corruption of California’s South Bay:
Most of the coastline was still a stretch of damp and windswept dunes where wealthy men like Henry Huntington wanted to set up resorts. “When I studied the place, and saw its attractions, the beautiful topography it possessed, those terraces rising in harmonious degrees from the sea, I determined,” he wrote with a real estate men’s instinct for anticlimax, “that it presented such features as should make it the great resort of this region.”
Surfers will delight in “Sweetness and Blood,” but it is just as enjoyable a ride for armchair travelers and cultural surveyors, those interested in seeing how the West infiltrates the remainder of the world. In this case it maneuvers past localism — er, nationalism — with the exhilaration of freedom accompanying accommodation to nature, a sense of becoming part of nature even when to do so you must dodge Cuban authorities suspicious of things that float to America. Or risk being shot to get boards across the Israeli border. Or possibly drown when a riptide pulls you under and wraps your leash around rocks submerged in freezing, unfamiliar waters.