'On The Java Ridge' by Jock Serong
Review by Phil Jarratt
When we consider surf-based fiction as part of the greater body of work known as surf literature, it is my opinion that the best examples of the sub-genre are the one’s most distanced from the act of riding waves.
Take Kem Nunn, for example, a very good writer whose take on surfers and surfing is noir to say the least. But I think his least surf-oriented book, Tijuana Straits, is his best, while I struggled with The Dogs Of Winter, which seemed to stage-manage its surfing scenes.
Which brings me to the best surf-related fiction I have read in a long, long time, possibly ever – Jock Serong’s riveting On The Java Ridge. Serong has been a writer of interest to me for some time, notably for his work on the worthy but short-lived Great Ocean Quarterly, his journalism in Australian Surf Business, and his first two novels, Quota and The Rules of Backyard Cricket. Being a cricket tragic, I couldn’t put the latter down, but both these books revealed a fast-improving writer whose broad interests and willingness to research facilitate a remarkable ability to twist plots thrillingly and plausibly.
A writer who surfs, rather than the reverse (and yet approaches both with an intensity of purpose), Serong sets up Java Ridge to be the most “surf” fiction he has written to date, and in some ways, with much of the action set on and around a surf charter boat in Indonesian waters, it is. But it is so much more, and in building parallel plot-lines elsewhere, Serong strengthens the characterisations of his surfers as they fleetingly appear, struggling with a moral dilemma that will define them.
Anyone who has ever been on a surf boat charter will identify with the sense of entitlement that comes from slapping down big bucks to ride perfect waves, the guy who just ain’t gonna listen to the skipper that there’s a better break around the corner. And for anyone who has been on a charter, it’s no stretch of the imagination that potential disaster is never far away, whether it’s a fire down below, a man overboard in the middle of the night, or a fishing boat capsized on a reef with a cargo of drowning asylum seekers.
By focusing on the building drama that envelops the surfers, rather than the perfect waves that go unridden (almost) on the fringing reef, Serong plays on who we are and what motivates us, as surfers, yes, but more importantly as human beings. And in so doing, he reveals more about what it is to be a surfer than any fiction I’ve read.
There’s a backstory here: Jock Serong and I have met a few times, and early in the year he emailed me a copy of his manuscript for my comments. I read a few chapters, pulled out a work in progress of my own about a fictional surf charter that I’d started years earlier, and deleted it, thinking from the outset that my work was dead in the water, so to speak. Then, in the heat of the tropics, my Mac had a meltdown and I lost most of the files I hadn’t backed up, including the Java Ridge manuscript. I actually felt like there’d been some kind of karmic intervention, that I wasn’t meant to read it.
But recently, when I received a proof copy, I devoured it in a couple of days and long nights. I knew it was good from the chunk I’d read months earlier, but it was far better than my original three chapter expectations. It’s a ripping yarn with some surfing in it, if that’s what you’re after, but it’s so much more than that too. In the interest of balance, I’ve searched for flaws in plot and style, and of course a few exist. Serong’s not perfect – yet – but shit he’s good.
And if you don’t believe me, take a thirty buck punt and make your own assessment. Java Ridge won’t disappoint.
'On The Java Ridge' is published by Text Publishing and is available at book stores now, $29.99.