Book Review: Imperfect Solitude by Tom Mahony

Book Review: <i>Imperfect Solitude</i> by Tom Mahony

Book Review

Imperfect Solitude by Tom Mahony
Casperian Books, 210 pages, $15.00
Releases December 1, 2010

Apropos to current coastal land development issues from Santa Cruz to San Francisco and points north (see “Big Wave” Development fight being waged in Half Moon Bay), Imperfect Solitude, a new novel by Central Coast writer and surfer Tom Mahony (Slow Entropy; the tweet novel Dead Glass), incorporates the local NorCal battles between environmental concerns and development greed into a Chandleresque plot line with surfing biologists, a sell-out scientist, a wealthy San Francisco real estate mogul, a neurotic, hypochondriac mother, a homeless Vietnam vet, and, of course, a hot, but non-committal, environmental activist babe for the love triangle subplot. Oh, lest I forget, there’s also drunk, druggy, and often nude roommates and friends all too familiar to SF flatmate vets.

As a working biologist, Mahony has lifted natural world details from his own professional knowledge and experience to fill settings and set up character conflicts. The protagonist, Evan Nellis (a surfer), dealing with the recent, mysterious death at sea of his father, is hired as a greenhorn biologist at PDT Biological Consulting in San Francisco. He is tutored, roughly, by Gordon Shaw (a surfer), a gruff and unfriendly biologist at PDT, but a guy who is an expert at what he does—evaluating land tracts and watersheds for environmental impact reports that could save or doom natural habitats. PDT works closely with a tycoon developer, Richard Headley (yes, dick jokes ensue), and it is this relationship between a biological consulting firm and a developer that creates both external and internal conflict amongst the characters. Add in Sarah, an environmental activist and ex-fiancé of Gordon, who Evan falls for heavily, and we have a love triangle that tangles the plot nicely. With personal and family debts weighing down Evan and his hypochondriac mother, the plot and subplots thicken. Ultimately at stake is Evan’s rural homestead that includes Solitude Beach, a heavy mysto beachbreak where his father taught him to surf and that serves as a moral barometer—as well as does Sarah—for Evan.

Tom Mahony has created a very entertaining read, especially if you are a surfer familiar with San Francisco’s Ocean Beach and the well-known, somewhat known, and mysto San Mateo County surf breaks (names changed to protect the secrets). The dialogue is excellent at revealing characters in an authentic and instantly familiar way, and the verbal sparring only seems forced a handful of times. Mahony employs a fair amount of metaphors and similes, often within the phrasing of a biologist, with most being pertinent to the characters and the situation. For example, “Sarah was a precious resource they both wanted but couldn’t both have, like the critters they surveyed, fighting over scarce territory.” However, there were a few similes that came out a bit forced and were perhaps overkill. The descriptions of the Outerlands and other ‘hoods of SF are fun to read, and Mahony does a fine job of portraying surf session moments.

If you are a fan of Raymond Chandler or Kem Nunn (Tapping the Source), Imperfect Solitude is definitely up your alley. Bonus if you are a surfer—especially a NorCal/Ocean Beach surfer, an environmental activist, a greedy land developer, or just a plain old San Francisco citizen. This is a fun novel to read on a surf-deficient day.

Excerpt from Imperfect Solitude:

Evan peered from his sleeping bag into the dawn. Damp chill washed over his face. Seagulls frittered about the shoreline, eyeing him as a potential scavenge. He retreated to his cocoon and savored the cozy stupor for a minute before emerging onto the sand.

He stomped for circulation and hobbled toward the ocean. Onshore wind burrowed down and scraped his bones. His body ached from yesterday’s trudge. He rubbed his back, cursed Gordon, and understood why so many employees quit after three weeks.

The morning light was soft and grainy, the eastern sky streaked orange. A wind-swell rumpled the Pacific. The water looked murky and frigid with upwelling; undoubtedly a cold and difficult paddle, ice-cream headaches and muscle fatigue. A surf, no matter how marginal, would clear his head. Bury the bullshit. Nobody could tell him how to ride waves. But the prospect of sliding into a damp wetsuit made him shiver. A coastal drive with doughnut, coffee, and blasting heater held more appeal. He decided based on the calculus of lethargy: the ocean had to offer waves sufficient to justify his suffering. It didn’t.

Evan approached his wagon and glanced toward the water. The breeze went slack. A wave peeled to the sand. Clean, symmetrical. For a moment the ocean turned smooth and inviting. He leaned against the hood and scratched his belly, wishing he hadn’t seen the wave. Inertia battled escapism, his inner loafer thumb-wrestling his cosmic drifter. Another glassy wave taunted him. Done. He slipped into his tattered wetsuit, grabbed his surfboard, and paddled out.

Thirty feet off the beach, he ducked under the first wave. Gallons of Pacific Ocean penetrated a wetsuit hole and rushed down his back. The set persisted and so did he. Endless paddling. His head numbed, arms jellied. Three weeks of hole-digging stabbed his right shoulder.

Though usually a tough paddle, Solitude Beach never denied him access. This was his spot. He knew it intimately, had mastered its moods. He’d seen others flail in the tricky current while he paddled by unscathed. But this morning he verged on collapse. Defeatist thoughts crept in. The car heater beckoned. No. He summoned the old resolve and paddled west. He crested a final wave and saw flat horizon. A few more strokes and he straddled his board in calm water.

Evan caught his breath and glanced around. The sheer mudstone wall flanking the cove loomed in the gathering light. Bright domes of alder and dark spires of Douglas-fir lined the canyons. Coastal terraces were covered in grassland, foothills textured with scrub. Pasture and farmland checkered the valley. Not a soul was visible. Few people surfed Solitude Beach. A dozen better spots dotted the local coastline. For years, Evan and his dad had mostly soloed the place. It had a mystique, a reputation as a heavy spot not to be trifled with. They took pride in it, an inside joke. A secret for which they were the sole trustees. Now Evan guarded it, alone, like the last survivor of some lost civilization.

Lines on the western horizon pulled him from thought. He dropped into the first set wave, turned, and streaked forward ahead of a whitewater avalanche. Wind bit his cheeks and stung his nostrils as he carved across the wave contour. The wave barreled fast and long until it collapsed in a slurry of water and sediment. Rather than hazard another paddle, he straightened out, dropped to his stomach, and rode whitewater to the beach.

He stood on the sand and studied the ocean, marginal at best, one wave and out. But he felt recharged: a few minutes of respite, a few minutes of truth.

He issued a curt, satisfied nod. “Good enough.”

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