Book Review: West of Jesus

Author: Steven Kotler
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publish Date: 2006

When Los Angeles writer Stephen Kotler acquired Lyme disease in 2000, he watched helplessly as his life pretty well fell apart. He then turned to surfing which somehow helped him feel better and that’s where he heard the legend of a bone-wielding shaman called “The Conductor,” a mysterious surfer who can control the weather for other surfers. Kotler then embarked on an international quest to track down the origin of this surf legend. Talk about an offbeat premise for a book.

Written in a relatively non-linear style, Kotler takes the reader on a journey through significant parts of his life and mixes in all manner of science, philosophy, mysticism and more. The common thread is, of course, surfing.

But even if you’re not much of a surfer, you’ll still get some interesting reading out of these 260 pages. His dry wit had me grinning. He describes his own less-than-stellar surfing abilities with just the right amount of self-deprecation so you don’t feel sorry for him but still feel his pain when he makes a wrong move on his board and winds up bruised and bleeding.

After a few years with Lyme disease and going through other changes in his life, Kotler decided to take a vacation to a place in Mexico called Costa Azul to do some surfing. As he does throughout the book, he spends time setting the scene by describing not only the look of the place, but its history as well. He mentions a yearly festival in a nearby town called San Pancho in which a bull wrapped in fireworks is let loose in the town square. After the fuse is lit “The result is a low-rent running with the bulls spectacle with an apparently acceptable level of carnage. Occasionally, someone is gored. Occasionally, a small white cross is added to the main square. This is what passes for fun in San Pancho.”

While describing his Mexican trip, Kotler backtracks to one he took to Malaysia to write a story several years earlier. It was there while surfing that he had a particularly bad wipeout and an Australian surfer told him “the Conductor” was having his way with him. When pressed, the surfer told him the legend of two surfers who went on a quest for the perfect wave and ran into a man who can control the weather with a wand made from human bone. He had forgotten the story until he went through a similar wipeout in Mexico and had a similar story told to him. And so he began his own quest.

His story contains bits of his own life experience, his search for meaning through all forms of mysticism, and his ultimate discovery of surfing as an activity with more spiritual qualities than anything else he’d ever tried. He describes it as such: “It felt like a voodoo sport, a homecoming to terra incognita, as surreal and beguiling a feeling as any I had ever known. I had investigated just about every mystical system known to man and had never found much that satisfied, but when I started riding a big chunk of plastic across a bigger chunk of water, suddenly it was like being given a day pass to an Egyptian mystery school.”

The mysticism of surfing, and mysticism in general, is a big part of the book. Kotler speaks to many surfers about it and ties in the rise of mysticism in the U.S. and its connection to surfing. He even manages to comfortably squeeze some Star Wars Jedi mythology into the mix.

As his quest continues, he often sidetracks when illustrating a point. He spends a chapter on weather control; discussing everything from how one Australian tribe saves the foreskins of their boys to bury them in the desert to summon rain, to how a late 19th century Austrian wine grower fired cannons into the clouds to try to keep the hail from falling. The most interesting part of this chapter comes when he discusses the U.S. military’s foray into weather modification. Starting with an experiment by General Electric in 1946 in which dry ice was dumped into a heavy cloud bank which purportedly caused a snowstorm, the military decided that “cloud seeding” could have important applications.

Kotler keeps digging and winds up in New Zealand where he thinks the Maori, some of the world’s original surfers, may be the ones who know the origin of the Conductor’s legend. He comes up dry there, and his journey leads to Hawaii, where the surf is big and the legends bigger.

Does he find out the Conductor’s secret? Pick up a copy of West of Jesus and take the ride for yourself.

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