The Renunciation (2023) by Alex McGlothlin: surfing intrigue in Costa Rica

Dilemma: do you follow what makes you happy, even though you might have to give up all of your promise, your education, the expectations of others? Or do you carry on doing a job that no longer fulfils you, ever chasing the dream of success and ambition and capitalistic gains? The two men in this short novella are both facing this dilemma.

Cover of The Renunciation by Alex McGlothlin. The silhouette of asurfer against a huge blue wave topped in white surf.
The Renunciation by Alex McGlothlin

Epigraph: “Renunciation means letting go of holding back.” -Lama Surya Das

The magazine where Michael Winston works, The Scout Report, has always been balanced politically. Now there’s a takeover and the editor is leaving. She was Michael’s mentor and had envisaged him as her successor, but the new owners prefer someone else, Sam Buell. He is a renowned sports journalist, but a bully and his entrenched far right views put The Scout Report’s political balance in danger. “The firm will give you both a blank check to pursue a major story. Something epic. Or a perspective that shifts the national narrative. Something startling that makes us all feel alive again.” What a challenge! What an opportunity! The story he is sent on is to interview a major surfing star who has suddenly become a recluse and stopped competing. Nobody knows why.

“Sonya had cashed in a career’s worth of favors [sic] to give me the opportunity of a lifetime: I would spend a week hanging out with the man Time Magazine had recently anointed ‘the world’s most mysterious man.’ That man was two-time world surfing champion Louis Giroux. Louis had won the 2015 and 2016 World Surfing Championships in Morocco and Bali just before disappearing from the public eye. Following a competition in Nairobi, Kenya, Louis had not in three years competed professionally, given an interview, or even been seen in public. At 25, the man who many speculated would become the greatest surfer of all time had simply vanished.” And yet his image is still everywhere as he endorses the top brand of surfer sportswear.

The story of the celebrity who wants to escape the pressure is ticking along perfectly pleasantly when he tells a truly bizarre story involving gambling with Somali generals, borrowing U2’s jet to take 42 prisoners to Nairobi and then on to France, which supposedly accepted them with open arms. I know this is told under the influence of a joint, but… And the tale gets crazier!

Like the journalist Michael Winston, who narrates this story, I know nothing about surfing. Ironically, mere days ago I watched a TV segment of people standing on a cliff in Portugal watching a surfer being towed by a jet ski to the top of a mountainous wave, just like the one Louis Geroux describes to Michael as the scariest place he has ever surfed. The surfer in the programme I watched was crushed by the wave and broke his back; now he’s recovered, he still surfs.

Michael’s journalistic ethics are somewhat murky. He’s looking for a feel-good story so would be happy to leave out anything that doesn’t fit that narrative (drug use, alcohol, etc.). He justifies this to himself by saying that even the choice of the story is a form of censorship.

He regularly slips into an odd stream of consciousness that can be oddly colloquial or downright peculiar: “a blue sky that covered us like ninny’s blanket on a summer afternoon when you’re a child and wet from playing in the pool and things can only grow and become more wonderful and you know nothing else. Back at a time when staying dry and warm underneath a big blanket was an activity you enjoyed in its own right.”

I really enjoyed this short story, although I found the ending slightly ambiguous. There was a sufficient element of mystery and jeopardy to make it interesting without it ever becoming a thriller. There were also a couple of inspirational fables included, which I certainly hadn’t expected. You won’t learn anything much about surfing or Costa Rica if you read this, but you might spend a few happy hours dreaming of beaches and leaving behind the normal pressures of life and career.


The one thing that was off-putting was the rather high number of typos, grammatical errors or things in need of an edit (it’s-instead-of-its type errors). This, on the first page, did not bode well! I put it down to being an uncorrected ARC.

“I mean we want it, right?” you asked. … She kissed me and wrapped her arms around me. [That ‘she’ should be ‘you’.]

Disclaimer: My thanks to NetGalley for a free digital ARC. This review reflects my honest opinion after reading.


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