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After Surfing Ocean Beach

by Mary Soderstrom

Mary Soderstrom’s third novel, though relatively uncomplicated in both style and structure, is curiously enigmatic. The mystery begins with the title: although the surf at Ocean Beach provides the setting for a number of flashback scenes, these are of no overarching significance, and the novel’s dominant plot takes place years after any of the characters last rode the waves.

Two characters narrate the novel in alternating chapters, but the story begins and ends with Rick. A reformed banker turned restaurateur in middle age, Rick returns to the San Diego area to help his widowed stepmother move into a home. But on his way to her house from the airport, he stabs a young man in a parking lot, then flees the scene of the crime in a panic. Annie, the second narrator, is the victim’s mother. As the story unfolds in the aftershocks of the assault, connections between Rick and Annie gradually emerge, challenging the very idea of the “random” act of violence.

The plot is certainly absorbing, and lent an atmospheric charge by the evocations of coastal California’s cliffside beaches. The prose is fluid and the voices are consistent, but this is a novel sorely in need of eccentricity, the recurring character tic, or a bold symbolic conceit. A glance at any page reveals details whose relevance to the whole is, like the title, questionable at best. The ponderous style is ill-fitted to a story so rooted in impulsive acts. Even the somewhat unconventional shifts in point-of-view become monotonous, because they never deviate from strict back-and-forth alternation.

So After Surfing Ocean Beach, although occasionally approaching what Annie calls “Greek tragedy in San Diego County,” often just feels mundane. Plot, setting, and character are all skillfully rendered, but they lack a clear sense of purpose to galvanize them into resonance.