Surf Book Review: The Buzzy Kerbox Story and Dense Surf-Psych-Travel Lit

7 May 2020 2 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Two wildly different books born from the same pursuit.

Two wildly different books born from the same pursuit.

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You know the surf culture is expanding when it can produce two books as wildly different as these

Surf books, like surf mags, were once pretty much all the same. These two, published within a month or so of each other, tell us how much has changed. One’s a light-hearted trip through a madly fortunate life. The other is unsettlingly close to literature.

Buzzy Kerbox was The Kid From Nowhere. That’s what Tracks magazine called him in 1977, when he came out and surfed in the Stubbies at Burleigh. Buzzy had moved from Indiana to Hawaii in 1967, when he was 11, and the fact that at first I had to figure out his age through other clues in the book tells you a lot about the narrative. Buzzy’s not reporting his story, he’s just telling it.

He skips along through grommethood comps with Michael Ho, Larry Bertlemann, Buttons and the Kealoha brothers, and describes driving the hour from Kailua to the North Shore to surf in those wild times: “One guy grabbed my board, flipped it over, knocked my fin off with his hand and said, ‘Now beat it!’ My dad was on the beach. I said, ‘Dad, do something!’ He did — we left.”

It’s water off this duck’s back. At 17, in 1974, Buzzy won the Smirnoff amateurs, made the Pro’s final day, and was chucked in to 30-foot Waimea Bay. He was scared, but when he heard big Ben Aipa, whom he’d knocked out the of the contest the day before, telling the beach marshal that he was ready to replace anyone who didn’t want to paddle out, “like Kerbox”, Buzzy knew he had to go. There’s a pic of him paddling up the side of a huge set wave, looking over at Jeff Hakman as Hakman is drifting into a sideways free-fall drop.

That’s the kind of thing you base a career on, and Buzzy did. He was all raw determination, though he was also the cleanest cut young professional surfer of his era. He describes a painful semi-final loss and follows it with this: “I was so disappointed, I got drunk.”

Drunk?! Yep that’s it. Don’t be looking for coke-fuelled outrages here.

Buzzy is also staggeringly good looking. It made him famous in a way no pro surfer of the time could manage. It should also make him kind of unbearable, but it doesn’t, because Buzzy is just … Buzzy. His book is like your best mate’s scrapbook, if your best mate, along with being a surf star, had somehow become Ralph Lauren’s favourite magazine model and one of Bruce Weber’s classic American muses, an archetype of sorts — “like a young Bobby Kennedy,” as Lauren says.

Looking at those 1980s Polo ads from today’s viewfinder, it’s almost painful to be reminded of America’s glorious and now vanished sureness of itself. But you don’t have to stay with that feeling for long, because that all rolls into Buzzy’s friendship with Laird Hamilton, and bloody hell, talk about sure of yourself. They get up to a lot of funny shit, Boys’ Adventure on a typically grand Laird scale, like paddling the English Channel on racing boards for the hell of it, and inventing big wave tow surfing using a customised Zodiac with a 60-hp outboard at 25-foot outside Laniakea. As Buzzy discovers, it’s hard to stay friends with Laird, and maybe their falling out did him a favour, because it marks a point where he begins to grow up.

But not completely, thank god. Buzzy has three boys, all equally improbably good looking, and he’s still the same person as ever: unaffected, friendly, and competitive as hell. You could buy this book for the pictures alone.

There’s no actual pictures in “Rainbownesia” other than the artwork on the cover, which is otherwise blank. Inside is a bold attempt at a surfer’s psychological travel narrative, as high-end a writing effort as you’re likely to find in surfing.

The psych-travel lit form was pioneered many years ago by the likes of Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), and modernised by writers like Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin, who used fictional techniques and structures to build on what was essentially a kind of super highbrow journalism. The stranger in a strange land thing.

Rainbownesia is a very dense read — a lot of words in small type, meandering along, the way days and indeed years on Pacific islands tend to do. The islands Michael visits are all slightly different, yet mostly past their best, living off the West’s cargo-cult beneficience. There’s Nauru, scalped by phosphate mining and now partly dependent on the Australian government’s refugee stipend, where the locals are languidly uncertain of the future. There’s Wallis and Futuna, where nothing ever changes. Saipan of World War Two fame, launching pad for the worst bombing runs in history. Almost everywhere he goes has shit surf, which in a less serious book might be cause for amusement, but which here is part of the point.

The writing is precise and accomplished. Michael observes, as a journalist should, closely. He takes hugely rigorous notes of long conversations, with Grahame Greene-like characters marooned in jobs far from home, and with islanders whose interest in this traveller from the US sorta waxes and wanes. He clearly loves the natural world, and recounts the Pacific’s four billion years of geological history with much engagement and interest; I really like the way he capitalises “the Sun”, giving the star its full due as this planet’s great driving force.

Occasionally — especially later in the book — he wigs out on the language, with lines like “airbrushed tentacles of hypermodernity” and “dawn was an empyrean exuberance of pinks and golds at the crease of a white-tufted sky”, which scream “where is the editor?” But all that is left behind by the half-hidden yet powerful sense of a person wrestling with great loneliness, struggling to connect with both his subject and with the people he encounters. Michael’s delicate hints at the reasons for this, his reference to a diagnosis of alcoholic liver disease and his brief description of an “emotionally remote” family life, tip you toward the final chapter, entitled “Love is the Eighth Wave”, where he tries to get somewhere on it all. It’s big lit stuff, and it’s too big an ask, but writer to writer, good on him for trying.

Making Waves
Buzzy Kerbox
Watermark Publishing
 
Rainbownesia
Michael Kew


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