Former war correspondent and current surf writer Chas Smith is almost daring you not to like his writing. He’s arrogant, smug overly-opinionated, focuses too much on style over substance (how surfers dress and whether or not they’re attractive holds much more weight for Smith than something as obvious as… well, how they surf). But damn, the guy knows how to write a fascinating story.
A self-described “trash prose Dandy,” Smith fearlessly details the dark and dangerous history and current reputation of Hawaii’s famed North Shore, where locals rule the beaches and surf competitions there with violence. Smith admittedly has a love/hate relationship with the region, where every winter he, other surf media and corporate sponsors join the competitive surfers in the annual contests there.
“I hate the North Shore and I want to dish its dirty secrets and make it look like the dirty, violent hovel that it is. But I love the North Shore and I really love it. I love that it is lawless. I love that it is gritty. I love that it has secrets…” Smith writes about a quarter into the book, with the kind of honestly that is clearly putting a target on himself amongst the local-pride-above-all-else surfers.
In Welcome to Paradise, Got to Hell, Smith sprinkles in history of the region, the waves and the backstories of the core surfing brands, while exposing the characters that currently reside on the North Shore, most notably Fast Eddie Rothman. Fast Eddie was born Jewish in Philadelphia, but based on his own backstory, as a teen he stole enough money from the inside of a Texans Cadillac to buy a one-way ticket to Hawaii, where he currently resides as a “Defend Hawaii” local who lives to watch his kids surf and intimidate anyone who he sees as slighting the locals. In the book, Smith details an incident where Eddie walks into the house owned by the popular surf company Billabong and slaps the CEO of the publically-traded company in front of everyone and then continues on to terrorize others there.
It’s the author’s willingness to focus on the gritty and salacious over the obviously sanitized version of surfing we are always shown that makes Welcome to Paradise such a compelling read. Though chances are Smith will never be allowed to step foot on the beach again to write a follow up.
Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell – A True Story of Violence, Corruption, and the Soul of Surfing by Chas Smith/Paperback/256 pages/It Books/2014