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On a Wave

Two nights ago, I wrote about Thad Ziolkowski’s new novel Wichita, which I was inspired to read by Natalie Bakopoulus’s review in last Sunday’s NYT. She wrote that “its emotional terrain is touching and vast. Whereas you might begin the book drawn in by its sense of humor, its ending will unhinge you, as if a storm has ripped through you and, like the wind in Rilke’s poem, sucked “the world from your senses.” I was halfway through at the time, and noted that I wasn’t unhinged yet.

I finished it yesterday. Bakopoulus has a point. I wasn’t all that fond of the characters initially, but the novel sneaks up and surprises with its power, so much so that I awoke this morning thinking about it and decided to download Ziolkowski’s memoir from a decade ago, On a Wave.

I’m just over a hundred pages in now. What a ten-year-old!

In the delightful prologue, the author, a week into a proofreading temp job in New York after teaching for a year at an upstate college, leaves work and takes the subway to Far Rockaway, where he finds a surf shop and heads out on a board for the first time in years. Then we begin the memoir proper, going back twenty-five years to the aftermath of Ziolkowski’s parents’ divorce. His father remains in DC, where he is a classics professor, while his mother and her soon-to-be husband move with the author and his younger brother to the Atlantic coast of Florida, near Cape Canaveral.

I don’t know which is more astonishing: the feats of the young author as he braves a world of teenagers and adults in order to learn the skills and culture of surfing or the willingness of his mother to let him participate in this world. Either way, it’s a breathtaking story, compellingly told.

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