Holy Water

Photo: John P. Johnson/Courtesy of HBO

Wherever John’s from, it’s not Cincinnati. Mars, maybe—or Andromeda, or the Gnostic Heresy, or The Da Vinci Code. “Brother from another mother” is how the heroin-addicted surfer Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt) describes John (Austin Nichols). And what John’s doing in Imperial Beach, California, among these spectacularly unhappy surfers, is even more mysterious than his origins. As if he consisted entirely of mirror neurons, he repeats whatever’s said to him, mimics even difficult behaviors, has just this minute discovered sex, and seems to manufacture credit cards and cell phones from thin air, like loaves and fishes. Did I mention the resurrection of the dead, starting with a parrot named Zippy?

Not only the paranormal arrives in Imperial Beach while everybody’s waiting for the perfect wave, but the miraculous as well. The co-creators of the new HBO series John From Cincinnati, the David Milch who gave us the anti-Western Deadwood and the Kem Nunn who wrote the surf-noir cult novel Tapping the Source, are determined to find God even among hodads and grunion. Three generations of surfing Yosts—grandfather Mitch (Bruce Greenwood), son Butchie, grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher)—are simultaneously blessed (water wings) and cursed (bad luck, bad knees, chemical dependency). Like heroes in a Greek myth, for their athletic genius they will be punished. But like pilgrims in a Christian allegory, from sinfulness they will be redeemed.

For the Yosts are as much awash in self-pity as in saltwater. Mitch surfs in predawn gloom, so as not to be seen by any old fans. Imagine his surprise, on dry land, to find his feet levitating a couple of inches up in the air, as if rehearsing an Assumption. Butchie lurches from score to score, as profane as Deadwood. Imagine his surprise, at the door of a seedy motel room, to discover John from Cincinnati, an angelic enabler. All that Shaun wants to do is ride the waves. Holding him back are the ghost stories of his father and grandfather and the dark designs of such corporate greedheads as Luke Perry and Emily Rose, eager to sign him into serfdom with a sponsorship contract. Mitch’s wife, Cissy (a splendid Rebecca De Mornay), is so weary of being the only adult in the bungalow that she resumes smoking. Performing as a Greek chorus are the Jewish lawyer (Willie Garson), the Latino motel manager (Luis Guzman), the ex-cop who talks to birds (Ed O’Neill), the gay lottery winner who packs both a pistol and a teddy bear (Matt Winston), the surf-shop clerk who introduces John to carnal knowledge (Keala Kennelly), and the usual friendly neighborhood ballast of drug dealers and sociopathic Vietnam vets (Dayton Callie, Paul Ben Victor, Jim Beaver).

It’s a strong cast, savoring the salty prose it speaks. And as sorry as some of us may be to see spirituality make a comeback on premium cable, where we have usually been able to count on the pleasures and mortifications of fleshly appetite, I must say that John From Cincinnati plays fair with the audience. It jumps the shark in its very first hour, and at the end of the third smites us with radiance. So we know from the start where it’s going. Whether we want to go with it will depend on how interested we are in a surfing family as a sort of leper colony. I grew up among surfers in Southern California, as mystified by them as Lew Archer was in Ross Macdonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962). I even tried to put them in a novel of my own—the walnut faces under helmets of corn-colored hair; the towel shirts, denim shorts, brandy-tinted sandals, and tawny cud-chewing stupor; the dumb contemplation of Dee Why, Bondi, and the Banzai Pipeline; the heartfelt prayers for a six-point-five—and went so far as to imagine them as prime numbers (a Three, an Eleven, or a Seventeen), each a noncomposite integer, indivisibly unique, subscribing to a bastardized Zoroastrianism, sleeping on styrene foamies, gold-feathered wrists webbed in blood rite. After Nunn published Tapping the Source, I thought it would never be necessary to think about them ever again. But here they are, unexpected but not unwelcome, bearing polished shields on their way to Oahu or a wipeout.

John From Cincinnati
HBO. Sundays at 10.

Holy Water