Lompoc isn’t well represented in fiction set in California. Santa Barbara always overshadows its neighbor to the northwest, but Dave Natal is trying to change that with his new novel, Loaded Barrels, set in and around Lompoc. A tale of surfers, cattle ranchers, and drug smugglers, with a romance thrown in to leaven things, Loaded Barrels is tailor-made for summer reading at the beach.
Natal’s yarn revolves around Lonnie Carmichael, a surfing prodigy with a predilection for trouble; Lonnie’s older brother and surrogate parent, Shaun; Leroy Higgins, the cantankerous owner of the Tranquillon Ranch who hates surfers and everything related to them; his only daughter Sally; and Stoker, an untameable Vietnam veteran turned lobster fisherman and surfing purist. Stoker is the soul of the story, a fierce defender of personal freedom and his way of life, as inclined to spout gibberish as he is to utter mystical proclamations.
Lonnie and Sally are an unlikely pair of teenage sweethearts, though they share being motherless children. Lonnie’s mother abandoned his abusive father and disappeared, and Sally lost her mother to the sea. This is one reason that Leroy is hyper-protective, the other, as mentioned, is a near-pathological hatred of surfers, particularly those who dare to breach the boundaries of his ranch on their way to the ocean. Leroy has amassed a stellar collection of surfboards over the years, confiscated from trespassers, and those people were fortunate to lose only their boards. In more extreme moods, Leroy will blast a board to bits with his trusty pistol. This penchant for violence has brought several lawsuits against Leroy, and is one reason he’s struggling to hold onto his beloved ranch.
Some novels are well crafted but lack a compelling story, and others manage to tell an engaging story despite a lack of craft or polish. For me, Loaded Barrels falls in the latter category. I had difficulty with the dialogue at times and felt that some scenes didn’t move the narrative forward. While this was frustrating, Natal’s descriptions of surfing, the world of surfers, and the beauty of the coast were enough to keep me reading. When the plot made a couple of unexpected turns I was happy I persevered to the end.
The city may be Santa Barbara’s less fortunate cousin, but in Loaded Barrels Lompoc and its environs get a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.