Published June 5, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

"A surf break can be a Walden Pond," writes Daniel Duane, "a material synecdoche of all one finds mysterious and delightful about the world." Unfortunately, there is little of the mysterious or delightful in Duane's chronicle of Northern California surf culture. Finding himself 27 and unemployed, the author takes a year off to go surfing. He orders a custom board, finds an out-of-the-way break he can call his own and paddles out. "Caught Inside" begins with promising descriptions of the insiderish nature of surfing, including this dead-accurate reading of surf magazine photo captions: "Where climbing, skiing. . . and white-water magazines identify every place in every photograph, with detailed travel and camping information, surfing magazines do their level best to disguise them: Delighted you bought the mag, but please, don't ever come here." The author leavens his seasonal diary with interesting histories of surfing, shark attacks and odd characters like Mickey "Da Cat" Dora, an early Malibu surf icon.

Too soon, however, the book bogs down in Duane's overwritten descriptions of surf spots, and by the end the reader feels trapped in a home slide show in which the host insists on describing every otter, bird, kelp bed and sunset he encountered atop his fiberglass float. Duane's enchantment with the sport is obvious, but his narrative doesn't so much celebrate surfing as inadvertently expose it. "Da Cat" turns out to be an ugly character, the world's first surf Nazi. Duane's friend Vince is so scared of getting assaulted by locals that he's afraid to speak above a whisper. A supposedly cool surf buddy spits on the windshield of two visiting surf enthusiasts because he thinks they're posers. Other friends cheat the same visitors out of a $1500 van. By the time the book ends, the surfing life seems more distasteful than romantic. Sometimes a surf break's a synecdoche, and sometimes it's just a holding pond for a jerkwater navy.

By Bruce Barcott

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