'All for a Few Perfect Waves' by David Rensin
All for a Few Perfect Waves

The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora

David Rensin

HarperEntertainment: 476 pp., $25.95

Miki Dora has been called many things: "Kerouac in board shorts" (the London Times); "a deconstructor of the American dream" (Surfer magazine); and "the Bob Dylan of surf culture" (surfing writer Drew Kampion). He's also been called an "outlaw" and a "prophet" and compared to Elvis, Muhammad Ali and Jack Nicholson, the latter specifically and tellingly for his R.P. McMurphy role in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

This much is certain, "Da Cat" (as the graceful, supremely confident athlete was also known) was the undisputed king of Malibu when that beach enclave sat at the dead center of the surfing world. This universe was the inspiration for the "Gidget" films, which in turn sent a nation into the waves. (Dora was "Gidget" star James Darren's uncredited surf double.) So much did Dora come to hate this new culture he helped create that he fled California by the early 1970s for a life of exile funded by check and credit-card fraud as well as the scamming of friends and acquaintances. A real-life Zelig, the Hungarian-born Dora was taught sword fighting as a child by Errol Flynn; he was at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was shot; and after leading the FBI on a seven-year international chase, he spent time in prison alongside Charles Manson.

As David Rensin writes in "All for a Few Perfect Waves," "Miki Dora's is the greatest surf story never told. It's all about surfing, and it's not about surfing at all."

Rensin's book is mostly excellent -- and I say "mostly" because Dora's life serves as both aspirational legend and cautionary tale. For many fans, the facts are unimportant, almost unhelpful. But the fiction? Well, Da Cat stories have a near-mystical currency. "All for a Few Perfect Waves" sacrifices that appeal, swapping fiction with fact, mythology with man. In short, it supplants a fairy tale for surfers with a kick-butt biography for everyone else.

Because Dora, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2002, is a near-impossible figure to capture, Rensin's true insight was not to try. "All for a Few Perfect Waves" is an oral biography, told almost entirely in quotes culled from the more than 300 people he interviewed for the book. Between the quotes are Rensin's incredibly long sentences, which might be trying in other contexts, but here, serving as both scene setting and transition, are justified.

Frustrated FBI agents, beleaguered ex-girlfriends, angry credit-card company executives and close relatives all get their say. So do a panoply of surfing legends, from such early pioneers as Dora contemporary Mickey Munoz to modern master Chris Malloy. The results are not just the most complete portrait of Dora ever painted but also a solid recounting of surfing's original boom years and a thin, peculiar slice of Americana in the late 1950s and early '60s -- a staid time that was ripe for so mercenary an iconoclast as Dora.

Here is Denny Aaberg, who co-wrote the classic surf pic "Big Wednesday," describing Dora's world and post-Beatnik beach culture: "Malibu became a radical place, a lawless, esoteric society with surfing as the entertainment. One wild ride after another. If you weren't a regular, you had to watch your step because there were some pretty tough characters around."

Far from idealizing his subject, Rensin lets the reader know that although Da Cat was king among surfing's rogues, it was not without good reason -- or, at least, what passed for it in Dora's mind. "Miki believed Armageddon was at hand in the Western world," says Greg Meisenholder, one of Dora's old (and now also deceased) friends. "He wanted to find someplace safe -- which to me was as much an inner place, as well as a physical place -- where he could get away from the demons about to descend. He never said where his dark view came from. Maybe he'd invented it because he loved the search or because it somehow justified his behavior."

Dora's bad behavior, as legendary surfer Greg Noll said in his eulogy for the man, was centered around a core belief in himself: "[H]e never, ever sold out. . . . His personal integrity was much more important to him than taking money . . . for endorsing some phony surf product just to make his life easier financially." That's also why oceanographer and big-wave pioneer Ricky Grigg can claim: "People sometimes compare [Dora] to James Dean or Brando, but that's backward. They were him."

For these reasons, "All for a Few Perfect Waves" is much more than just another day at the beach. *

Steven Kotler is the author of "West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief."