The Surf Guru
by Doug Dorst
Reviewed by Karla Starr
Whereas Doug Dorst's debut novel, Alive in Necropolis, imagined a world populated by ghosts and cops -- its surreal set-up given to realistic plot twists -- The Surf Guru, a collection of short stories, favors black humor and the occasional satire, boundaries of realism pushed to their comical, absurd ends.
Dorst writes about the disappointed and the irresponsible from all walks of life with such authority and nuance, such generous spirit and empathy at describing life's turns of fate. For example, the last story imagines a woman, Jo, who falls in love with Shane, a dog she's caring for while housesitting. After failing a test for a job license, she steals Shane before taking him on a road trip. I'd have found "Astronauts" hysterical and heartbreaking if I hadn't read the story while housesitting, waiting to hear about a job I'd applied for, as a golden retriever named Buddy rested on my lap. The semi-circular driveway, the gooey tennis balls ... was Dorst tracking me? Had we "met"?
If so, he's been a busy man, spying on neurotic cake decorators, teenage Trichotillomaniacs, speechwriters on the campaign trail, flower-delivery guys, surfing entrepreneurs, scorned early-20th century botanists, fruit stand owners and rebel fighters. The characters are obsessed, lost, scarred and looking for revenge when they should be seeking therapy. Like Denis Johnson's characters in "Jesus' Son," Dorst writes losers with great aplomb, especially a pair of friends from "Vikings" who reappear in "What Is Mine Will Know My Face." Their descent is painfully detailed as they drink, fail to get over relationships and seem to be stuck in self-destruct mode.
At his best, Dorst sees Johnson's gritty character portraits and raises the bar. The Surf Guru is as mixed in tone as it is in spirit, inspiration and subject matter. There's a true diversity too infrequently found in collections, one reminiscent of other great imaginations such as Haruki Murakami and T.C. Boyle.
"Splitters," told through the eyes of a disrespected academic and his son, is a satire of lost love, academia and the world of botany that's absurd and hilarious, yet so different than the slow-moving magic realism-cum-Shirley Jackson of "La Fiesta de San Humberto el Menor." Some reviewers have suggested that Dorst has yet to find his voice; on the contrary, Dorst's chameleonic style consistently nails the right voice for each story. It's his talent, not his Achilles' heel, and makes for a delightful and courageous effort that's well worth the read.