How would you feel if you knew that Homer had paid Odysseus to tangle with the Cyclops? Or that Flaubert was giving some kind of financial inducement to Madame Bovary to sleep with Rodolphe? What if Norman Mailer, while reporting on The Fight, was standing up ringside and yelling out, "Ali, stay glued to those damn ropes, I'm signing the check right now!"
That is more or less how I felt while reading Susan Casey's The Wave. Not only was she paid a tsunami of money to write this book, but she passed on a goodly chunk of the loot to Laird Hamilton, her hero and protagonist, for his "collaboration". Even if we allow that in a crazy quantum world there is no such thing as a neutral, detached observer, we still have to ask whether Casey – now editor-in-chief of O, the Oprah magazine – is seriously compromised.
Laird Hamilton, for anyone who hasn't seen Riding Giants (one of his many surf movies), is an absolute genius at riding extremely large, potentially lethal formations of water. He has grace under pressure in spades. He also looks good in shorts even without a wall of water under him. And, having bumped into him once or twice, I think he is a decent, upstanding citizen even on dry land.
But Laird Hamilton is not God (or even a god). Casey's gaze, when not reverential, is erotic, with a slightly vampirish excitement at the sight of blood. What comes over is pure Hollywood romance. I nearly went mad trying to work out which one was faking it more. In the course of one of the many encounters between wave (large) and human (small), a spectator blurts out, "This is REAL!" But I think "UNREAL!" would probably be more to the point.
Hamilton would be out there doing what he does regardless of being bankrolled by publishers. In a varied career, he has also been a wetsuited double for James Bond (Die Another Day) and has earned a healthy income from sponsors for getting his photogenic face all over front covers of surfing magazines and the National Geographic. Which is all legal and fair. But it is breathtakingly holier-than-thou for him to go about denouncing other players whose "intentions were never genuine. It was always about 'How can I exploit this?' and 'How can we maximize our marketing dollars?'"
The laws of economics say that it is only natural for a successful enterprise to want to down all the competition. Psychologically, it is understandable if, despite all the other big-wave riders, Hamilton wants to be the great one-and-only. But what really makes me queasy is the tame parrot on his shoulder. It's like reading a 300-page blurb. I'd rather be pulverised by a solid 60-footer.
Laird has a feudalistic tendency to assume some kind of droit de seigneur over "Jaws" in Maui, Hawaii, one of the few waves on the planet to which the word "awesome" can reasonably be applied. So be it. But it looks stupid or besotted for a writer to jog along with this mentality and confine herself to saying, in summary, "Oh, Laird, you are sooooo wonderful, you great, gorgeous, rippling, sublime hunk of a guy!"
Andy Martin's 'Stealing the Wave' is published by Bloomsbury