Jeff McElroy reviews Michael Kew’s Crossings

We already know that there is a lot of inspiration to be found in the water and around the surf lifestyle in general. Here at Korduroy, we’re interested in how that surf inspiration manifests itself in and out of the water: in artistic ways, community-based ways, environmental ways, health ways. For most of us, it starts and ends in the water. Michael Kew and Jeff McElroy examine that inspiration in writerly ways (which is to say artistic, but we’re getting specific here). You may recall that Kew put together (by his own hand) a book of travel stories back in 2012, called Crossings. McElroy, author of a short story collection calledCalifornios, recently read Kew’s work and here he shares his thoughts on this lovely little book about Kew’s travels from 2001-2011 through what appears to be love lost and found again within the world’s oceans. 

Review of Michael Kew’s Crossings 
By Jeff McElroy

I first met Michael Kew’s words a long time ago in a free surf rag when I was supposed to be going to UCSB but was getting more of an education living in my truck down along California’s Central Coast, courting Kerouac and Nietzsche over too many bottles of beer and through the smoke of too many roll-yer-owns, surfing away hangovers that, today, could easily put me in the hospital. And there amidst the bleating ads and airbrushed photos of pros busting airs in tropical teases, Kew’s meditations on Hebridean surf wanderings floated like sepia shipwreck salvage. I sat up a bit in my camper shell and focused my headlamp on the words:

“Peering into flames, I wedged my elbows comfortably between driftwood scree, shoes stirring the coarse, gray beach sand, once consolidated as metamorphic rock transformed by the heat and pressures of distant geological traumas. Opposite the firepit, through the torquing yellows and oranges, sat new friend Roderic: Burly, stubble-faced and densely clothed, alternating between beer and cigarette, he looked more like a typical commercial fisherman than surfer. Yet this was no typical surfscape.”

And there it was: proof that my two passions, surfing and words, could be entwined like lovers.

The stories in Michael Kew’s Crossings: Selected Travel Writings 2001-2011 are exactly that—crossings of a lucid surf addict in search of waves (and whisky). From Gaelic gales to tropical treats, to Lost Coast ghosts, Kew is our humble avatar on a hunt for rideable water. The spirits of two Jacks (London and Kerouac) wend through an original voice that feels old and new at the same time. We are not in the hands of a gawking, Western-centric, colonial-style, travel-snob yippie, nor are we in the company of a bleeding-heart, patchouli-scented, all-permissive wanderer. Rather, we’re asked only to ride wingman with a dude who wants to check new spots, find new waves, and have a few drinks with the locals. Amen to that.

Kew doesn’t always find waves. In fact, entire stories are bereft of solid surf despite the author’s careful attention to maps, bathymetry charts, and swell models. But, as wiser water(wo)men know, the pursuit of waves is usually the impetus to larger things. In Denmark, Kew sits “bobbing like a cork, a curious spectacle for the lingering German tourists in their cars on the vast, stark beach. Steve slept on the hire-car’s hood. Clearly, this was not one of the annals of epic surfdom.”

“But then again, yes, it was—we’d surfed Denmark. Twice.”

Or in Wales: “Hard rain and wind ensued mid-way through the session as the tide pushed, shutting the waves off like a faucet. Oxwich only works with a slim tide window at low tide, good for perhaps an hour or two before vanishing on either side of the shift.” Clearly, Kew is not writing propaganda for the Northern European Surf Travel industry. Then again, his words could describe nirvana for that handful of surfers more amped by journeys than by destinations.

Which isn’t to say Crossings wants for any sun-soaked, swaying-palm tree bliss. In Polynesia, surrounded by “low cloud banks smeared with mauve and ocher,” and “the water a bold powder-blue,” Kew meets a girl: “Age 19, flawless teak skin, balanced face, emerald eyes, classy smile, thick brown hair to lower back […] Bikini-topped and well-endowed, her hourglass figure drew my eyes and imagination from her face down to her smooth brown dancer’s belly, down to her sarong-draped hips, hairless legs, and manicured toes.” Kew imagines taking her to his bungalow, marrying her, even. “Harsh heartbreak cast by my ex-girlfriend,” he writes, “would be stalled indefinitely.” Could this be why Kew roamed and rambled around the globe from 2001 to 2011? Unrequited love is certainly enough to propel a pirate across the seven seas. Heartbreak is a potent bio-fuel.

Kew blends the best of Lonely Planet Guides with the artistic humility of David Foster Wallace. Objective reporting can often illuminate the subjective soul of the author, simply through which objects, people, and ideas (s)he chooses to illuminate with the writer’s flashlight. After listening to a Comorian man proselytize about Allah, Kew says, “Yes, God is great. Where is the ferry office?” Later, when a man tells Kew to avoid traveling to Anjouan because of the political violence, he replies, “We have no choice. Unlike here, there are waves on Anjouan.” Because surfing, for many, is a religion. And like any religion, sacrifices are required.

Kew reports, gives us his world, but facets of his personality and identity inevitably resonate throughout the tales. What of the woman he left behind, or left him? Did she spur his prolific travels? We can’t know, but it’s better that way. There’s also a deep sense of loneliness in the book; the loneliness of a scribe adrift in a world so far from his Central California home. And yet, Kew is far from adrift in his focus: he is here to find waves. The collection appropriately ends in the Pacific Northwest and its “through-the-trees vistas that exemplified the northwest surf experience: a gray Pacific, jagged black rocks, and some variation of rideable surf that typically couldn’t justify the effort required to reach it. Or perhaps it could. State of mind leant reason to believe. Just ask brothers Bruhwiler or the middle Malloy. Believers, all.” You, too, will come away from this book a believer, if not in the way of courting dangerous breaks, at least in the way of realizing it’s still possible to find adventure on this planet and, also, to find yourself.

To purchase Crossings, contact Michael directly at peatpub gmail dot com. To learn more about him, check out his blog here: http://peathead.blogspot.com

Photos by Brooks Sterling, for illustration purposes only. To see more of Brooks’ work, visit http://iambrooks.com or check him out on Instagram @brookssterling. 

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