'On The Java Ridge' by Jock Serong

Phil Jarratt
The Depth Test

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.

Comments

surfstarved's picture
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surfstarved commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 1:49am

To date Breath by Tim Winton is my favourite work of surf fiction, although at the same time it's so much more. I've read Jock's 'Quota' and loved it, so I can't wait to get my sweaty mitts on a copy of 'On the Java Ridge', sounds like a worthy read.

Don't let the bastards grind you down

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 9:30am

I think I must beone of the few, maybe the only, surfer to not really like Breath.

mattlock's picture
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mattlock commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 9:46am

Breath. Starts promisingly and turns into a sordid tale with unlikable characters. More dross from Australia's most over-rated author.

radiationrules's picture
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radiationrules commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 9:49am

why stu? (I'm curious to know)

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 10:18am

I connected with the essence of it, and even think about it quite often, vis-a-vis young men exploring the dangers of the natural world and how it shapes them as grown men. It's one of the reasons I really don't like Vegemite Surf Groms or any kind of mollycoddled surf school: let teenagers on the verge of adulthood discover their own spaces and encounter their fears alone.

But that's another issue...

I felt like Breath was too rammed with meaning while making its point, like each character and scene had to have significance lest the readers not get the message. I haven't deconstructed it to any great extent, I don't really spend much time doing that with things I haven't enjoyed, but I get the feeling my ambivalence is a mix of brevity - if it wasn't Winton's shortest novel it was close to it - and writing for a non-surf audience.

I would've preferred more subtlety across a wider purview.

SurferSam's picture
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SurferSam commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 11:57am

Amazing how opinions can differ - I thought breath was not far off masterpiece material although I agree it got a little depressing towards the end. Favourite of all time is dirt music by TW amazing book his descriptions of the WA coast make it feel like you are there. Keen to read jocks work too - it's very hard to find an author who can capture surfing.

Snuffy Smith's picture
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Snuffy Smith commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 12:01pm

Spot on with the Grom thing Stu I thought it was just me having a strong resistance to that form of kid's learning to surf.

Balls of fire

freeride76's picture
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freeride76 commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 12:09pm

wow, I had a similar but opposite reaction to Breath in terms of it's Brevity. I thought, like most Winton books the Final third of the book just meandered right off into never-never land and was too long.
Same as Dirt Music.
At some point he loses the plot and goes into a realm which I find both unpleasant, overblown and inauthentic.

Agree, his descriptions of the WA coast are magical...to that end I find his best books his memoirs written specifically about that.

Breath would have made a great novella without all the auto-asphyxiation nonsense.

mattlock's picture
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mattlock commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 12:15pm

Dirt Music. Read that too. Found myself wishing th characters WOULD kill themselves so it would end quicker. I'm never going to get that time reading it back again. More over-blown dross. Try reading some Robert Drewe. He can say more in two sentences than Winton can in 50 pages.

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 12:22pm

"...without all the auto-asphyxiation nonsense."

It sure didn't need that to make the point about proximity to danger. Agree wholeheartedly about his descriptions of the WA coast. I was listening to a radio show on RN last week, something about the ways we derive meaning from the coast, and the guest mentioned that the two best coastal authors are Robert Drewe and Winton, both from WA, and she (at least partly) explained that as a result of WA still having large tracts of wild coastline while the east coast is largely urbanised.

I'm not entirely convinced, but Winton in particular has a gift for putting you right there in the sand dunes, sou-wester blasting on your face.

As for Jock's work, I really enjoyed Quota but not his next one, the Rules of Backyard Cricket. His body of work, from his articles in Surfing World and CW, to ASB and Great Ocean Quarterly has easily created enough momentum to carry me over to Java Ridge. Hoping to read it soon....and bang on about it in a comments section somewhere shortly thereafter.

memlasurf's picture
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memlasurf commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 1:11pm

Yeah I hated the characters in Breath particularly that lunatic women and your right everyone was overblown. Not my favourite book of his. Read a few others and quite enjoyed them, not this one. You have hit on my pet hobby horse, the fast tracking of groms to further other peoples needs. None of my generation were driven to the surf, or school footy or school. Dad used to say we were soft if we complained as his lot went through a depression and a war. Not wanting to foist this on anyone however for me it has swung way too far the other way.

freeride76's picture
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freeride76 commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 1:16pm

Not me. I find/found his work singularly boring. I read his stuff, keep waiting for him to say something, make a point......and get to the end and realise, once again there was no point. He seems a guy who is petrified of having a strong feeling/opinion about something, one way or the other and I find writers like that tedious.

He was a lawyer, right? That's what his stuff reads like to me.

You'll probably pull this out in 5 years time and bash me over the head with it Stu, when I read a really good book of his and start praising the living shit out of him.

mattlock's picture
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mattlock commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 1:24pm

Freeride. I wouldn't worry. I don't think u will ever get a good book out of Winton.

freeride76's picture
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freeride76 commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 1:26pm

was talking about Serong there.

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 1:45pm

Into the dossier it goes.

mattlock's picture
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mattlock commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 1:50pm

Sorry bout that freeride. I will read some Serong soon me thinks.

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 1:52pm

Breaths got some epic sections, Especially if you have an interest in south coast WA and finding waves etc

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 7:36pm

Agreed. I'm not keen on he plot as a whole, but fuck, the wide-eyed descriptions of WA's granite coast speak of lived experience. Great stuff.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 7:45pm

You been ?

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 7:56pm

As it happens, no. But I've run down enough trails and of all the myriad ways a coastline can be interpreted my experiences, irrespective of location, are always distilled to a single essence: what does it mean for surf?

Which is how Pikelet views his granite coast.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 7:59pm

Good answer

Craig's picture
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Craig commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 2:08pm

I whole heartedly agree on his description of the coastal landscape.

The image Tim painted in Breath was so vivid, without knowing where he was from and scouting the WA coastline, upon finding Denmark I knew it was the place he was describing. Magic stuff.

crg's picture
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crg commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 2:30pm

I'm with FR on Winton...over-rated and the back end of his novels lose me every time. But we all seem to be in agreeance that he paints the SW beautifully.
Haven't read any Serong...I'm probably more interested in his cricket book than this one...I find pure surf writing so much better in shorter format than novel length.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 2:48pm

I like a bit of Jock Serong.

Never read any of his books but I find his short articles for SW very enjoyable.

There's humour involved for a start and how rare is that these days ? Surf writing used to be gold in the humour stakes and now there is the bitchy faux gayness of Beachgrit or nothing.

Wade Davis( ? ) was doing alright for Surfing Life when I last had even the slightest inclination to check it out , but that's about it .

Surf writers of any worth are very thin on the ground . I can think of maybe 6 prolific writers that I get jazzed when I see their name at the top of the page.

And who's doing humour ?

freeride76's picture
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freeride76 commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 4:59pm

Jock Serong must have a body double that I've never read. I couldn't think of a more humorless, flat surf writer than the Serong I've read.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 5:08pm

What about his " history of " stories ?

Not flat out comedy , but at least some light hearted good humour .

Name one other writer that attempts humour. Bar Beach Grit 's bitchiness or Doherty's Strine one liners.

Tim Baker's picture
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Tim Baker commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 5:16pm

Man I laugh at people bagging highly regarded, published authors. Ever tried to write a novel? It is fucking hard. And to get new Australian fiction published? I've written, what, eight non fiction books and my publisher still recoils with horror at the mere mention of the "n" word - novel. Serong has published three novels in four years all to critical and popular acclaim, and ditched a successful legal career to devote himself full time to writing. With four kids to feed. That is conviction. Talent will only get you so far but daring to believe you have something worthwhile to say and putting it all on the line to have a crack at furthering your art is worthy of the greatest respect I believe.

crg's picture
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crg commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 8:03pm

All art is dissected , talked about, opined about.

Why is it laughable to have a negative opinion just because one hasn't written a novel? Can I express a feeling about a piece of art if I've never painted? Can a punter in the pub bag a footy player even if he's never played a game?

Better to just say nice stuff all the time? Defeats the purpose of art doesn't it?

Tim Baker's picture
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Tim Baker commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 8:24am

Of course any one can criticise art but I don't believe art only exists to be criticised. But there's a fair bit of negativity here from people who haven't even read the book and no regard for the sacrifices a writer makes to pursue their craft. Just read the book. It's stunning. I'm probably naive but I guess expect a little more camaraderie from those among the commenters here who are writers themselves.

crg's picture
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crg commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 3:48pm

I hear you. But art, in its pure form, must elicit strong commentary on both sides of the spectrum. If we express a deep and profound narrative in our words, or express a heartfelt emotion with our brushstroke, I'd want people to both love and hate it. I'd almost take that as a measure of success.
I also think the whole "sacrifice" argument is moot. I know plenty of artists who've had to sacrifice their dreams for financial security, just as successful financially secure lawyers who think they're artists are a dime a dozen. You make your own choices and live or die by them, I don't believe it deserves a medal of honour.
PS. I have acquired a copy of his cricket novel...looking forward to reading it and forming my own opinion.

OHV500's picture
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OHV500 commented Monday, 14 Aug 2017 at 10:18pm

Well said Tim.
So easy to comment, but to actually do something - now there's a petrifying challenge.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 5:18pm

Fair enough , Mr Baker.

You ever read a book you didn't like ?

Tim Baker's picture
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Tim Baker commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 5:37pm

Yes though if I don't like them I generally don't finish them, but remain open to the idea that others find something in them that I don't

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GuySmiley commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 5:28pm

Not a Winton/Breath fan at all. Did like Favel Parrett's Past The Shallows and Jack Finlay's Wind on the Water and other surf stories.

Clam's picture
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Clam commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 6:28pm

Well said tim B . Ive not read much of serongs books so cant say much .
I laugh at the critics of "breath" because thats a book that I have read over a few times and have favorite sections re: Sando and "old smokey & the nautilus"
. Fully Epic !

SurferSam's picture
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SurferSam commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 6:57pm

Not just the SW but also wintons writing about the mid west is amazing. Dirt music had me right there in Jurian bay (in my mind) or some other cray fishing town near there. The isolation and beauty in his description of the coast is a gift not many others have. Very WA-esk. Some of his books I have struggled to read though - like cloud street. But for others that's the best one. It's subjective and it's art I guess. I reckon there's a desolation and loneliness to much of the WA coast that east coasters struggle to understand - maybe that's why some struggle to relate to some of his writing

Phil Jarratt's picture
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Phil Jarratt commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 6:59pm

Wow! If this was a book club Freeride would have smashed his teacup and glassed some one by now, or at least hurled a few lamingtons! A surfers' book club - nice idea. Let's do it! In a good fighting pub. The Rails at Byron springs to mind. Oh, for the record, Java Ridge is about as far from "pure surf writing" as it's possible to get. As for humour, I cracked myself up writing Life Of Brine, tears of laughter all over the keyboard. But that's just me.

Phil Jarratt

dandandan's picture
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dandandan commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 9:27pm

Ocean Life Book Club? I'm in.

I've got really vivid memories of parts of the coast I've never been to thanks to Winton. I read Breath in one sitting sitting out a rainy night in a VN station wagon. I pick up on ideas of it pretty often (like how he felt he was missing out when Sando and his mate went to Bali and scored and he felt like a kid for saying at home). There's a scene in Dirt Music with old mate poacher freediving out to sea, laying on the bottom and staying down there a bit too long not wanting to come back up. I think of that a lot for some reason. The Turning has some great surf sections in it too, but for me it's his essays that do it for me, or his one liners about the sea. Anything that speaks to place in general tickles my fancy. In fact, I boldly declared I liked Winton more than Flanagan the other day, which is a pretty big deal for a bookish Tasmanian.

I haven't read Jock's stuff before, but I was always pretty stoked on the idea of GOQ. I was earning less than the dole when it came about so I never bought it, and I was sad to see that it has quietly disappeared.

An article that stuck with me a few years ago from Surfing World was a profile about Maurice Cole by Brendan McCalloon (??). I had never been interested in Cole and had never heard of BM, but I read that article at least five times. If he has written more send it my way! I'd love to flick through the article about Camel someone did a while ago too - who was that?

But if we're speaking ocean stuff in general, a great little book is Salt Stories by Sarah Drummond. It's all about fishing, but it's another book that keeps me in the bathroom way too long.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 7:54pm

Dan - I push this in every thread that Winton gets a mention : Read Smalltown . Text by Winton , photographic essay by Martin Mischkulnig. It's one of his best. Captures the culturally entrenched , self inflicted wound that is the built environment of the Colonial Australian frontiers.

Mediates on how it reflects on the Australian psyche.

Deep by Brendan Macalloon is alright.

SurferSam's picture
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SurferSam commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 7:00pm

Oh and TB I really enjoyed your round australia book (with your family). Could relate to the old chest nut of balancing keeping the family happy while still getting water time For surfing

Haski's picture
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Haski commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 7:01pm

"Breath "the movie should be out soon I wonder how it will translate on the big screan the surfing by the sound of the interviews I've read should be sick

Haski

frog's picture
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frog commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 7:58pm

Breath 2/3 good / great and last third a vaguely depressing nothing burger.

Now back to the poor author being reviewed who is almost lost in this thread

Java Ridge
Java Ridge
Java Ridge
Java Ridge

there back on balance now

Frogg

Rabbits68's picture
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Rabbits68 commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 10:52pm

Intersting to hear the different takes on Winton's novel Breathe. I absolutely loved it. The whole lot. So vivid. So real. Like I was there. One of my all time favorites.

Can you call a successful novelist "overrated" until you've written at least one decent one yourself? I suppose you can, but does it carry any weight?

Crystal Clear

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Horas commented Friday, 11 Aug 2017 at 11:27pm

Not read Jock Serong so can't comment but read a few Wintons.Having worked on WA crayboats through the 80's and 90's in the mid-west will agree with Surfer Sam,made me feel I was back on deck.Winton nailed that experience

radiationrules's picture
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radiationrules commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 10:53am

If I was Jock Serong; I'd be very happy with being compared to Tim Winton.

I once did an artwork that was a deconstruction of TW's Breath, part of a broader exhibition on Frontier Surfing. The idea of the artwork being that one perfectly formed sentence is enough to inspire imagination or connect memory.

..more than one perfect sentence, creating a whole fictitious world - now that's a gift. I'm looking forward to reading Jock Serong's works - I'd never heard of him until now.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin commented Saturday, 12 Aug 2017 at 4:09pm

Which artistic medium did you use ?

uncle_leroy's picture
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uncle_leroy commented Tuesday, 15 Aug 2017 at 1:14pm
UserMick's picture
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UserMick commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 6:44am

Read Quota - great read, fun. Read Java Ridge - very well written and exciting book. Not often do we get a political thriller in our culture - thanks to the author for a really good story.

dandandan's picture
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dandandan commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 10:35am

This all reminds me of a strange movie I saw years ago about things going awry on a charter boat in the Maldives. A French guy storms their wave and a guy beats him up on the beach, sexually assaults someone, shit hits the fan and there's a murder of sorts. Did anyone ever see that or did I somehow stumble upon the only copy of it in existence?

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 10:38am

Sounds like 'Caught Inside' which was set on a charter boat in the Maldives and includes a sexual assault and shitting hitting the fan, but not a French guy or a murder.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 10:44am

Pretty sure that you're talking about the movie where Nudge from Hey Dad went full skitz mix on a surf charter.

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 10:45am

It wasn't Nudge but Nudge's mate.

Nudge was a surfer but.

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 10:49am

Nudge

Bloke who went skitz in Caught Inside at left.

Fat kid who sold Sorbent bog paper lower right.

thatguy's picture
thatguy's picture
thatguy commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 6:42pm

Bloke with wandering hands top right.

Dale -Cooper's picture
Dale -Cooper's picture
Dale -Cooper commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 6:55pm

Young girl he sexually assaulted in front.

“The dog leg. That dog had four legs. One you found in my trunk. The other three went out with the information you're thinking about right now. Two people you don't want coming around here if anything bad happens to me.”

goofyfoot's picture
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goofyfoot commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 7:46pm

what a fam

dandandan's picture
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dandandan commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 10:55am

Haha that's the one! You can watch the whole thing on Youtube I think. I stumbled upon it in a sleeve of pirated DVDs in a surf camp somewhere and even though it was declared to be rubbish everyone there sat glued to it in silence (mostly because the TV volume didn't get above barely audible).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-E8hGpECdy4

MickS's picture
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MickS commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 5:32pm

I'm with Tim Baker here. Knowing the passion and effort Jock puts into his work makes the shots he's copping a bit hard to take. Four books in four years. With a ton of research involved in each as he leaves nothing to chance. Respect. I reckon there's a big case for put up or shut up.

MickS

goofyfoot's picture
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goofyfoot commented Thursday, 17 Aug 2017 at 7:50pm

Bought Jock's book this arvo, start on it tonight.

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Saturday, 9 Sep 2017 at 7:28am

Fairfax throw a great review Jock's way. How's this for a mighty comparison:

"At times On the Java Ridge courts the didacticism of late period John le Carre when really Serong needs to channel someone such as Clive Cussler or Iain Banks to move the plot along. But this is only a minor quibble – how it all gets resolved in the third act is nicely done and I enjoyed jumping between the very different points of view that Serong uses to tell his taut and impressive third novel."

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/on-the-java-ridge-review-jock-serong-plunges-into-politics-and-refugee-policy-20170819-gxzvbp.html