Barbarian Days: William Finnegan's surfing memoir is a glorious ride
There comes a bright Sunday Hawaiian morning in William Finnegan’s youth, and in the first chapter of his captivating new book, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, which finds the author, then in middle school, paddling back from a surf session while the rest of his family “sweated it out” at church.
Despite the serenity of the water, whose grip on him that morning was “loose and languorous,” the author realizes that “I was lashed to its moods now,” so absorbed in surfing—by “the deep mine of beauty and wonder in it”—that he is no longer in control. “I did not consider, even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing.”
It is our good fortune that his jonesing for that rush was matched, even then, by an equally powerful biological imperative—the one bidding him to get things down on paper. Finnegan’s family had just moved to Oahu from southern California: the vivid detail and sharp recollection in this chapter, “Off Diamond Head,” spring, in part, from the letters he wrote to a friend on the mainland, a sheath of which found their way back to him, decades later. Finnegan is an excellent surfer; at some point he became an even better writer. That pairing makes Barbarian Days exceptional in the notoriously foamy genre of surf lit: a hefty, heavyweight tour de force, overbrimming with sublime lyrical passages that Finnegan drops as effortlessly as he executed his signature “drop-knee cutback” in the breaks off Waikiki.
Finnegan has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987; five years after his arrival that magazine published “Playing Doc’s Games,” his two-part, 29,000-word opus on his complicated relationship with both the gnarly surf off San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, and the mentor who exhorted him to devote ever more of his waking hours to the pursuit of those waves. It is generally considered one of the best stories on surfing, ever.
In 2004, he wrote an intriguing and prescient piece called “The Candidate,” on a then-42-year-old Illinois state senator named Barack Obama. While I read, and was riveted by, that story I didn’t make it a point to memorize the writer’s byline. That happened a year later, when Finnegan wrote the introduction to Matt Warshaw’s stunningly comprehensive Encyclopedia of Surfing, which is now online. Those two, storyteller and historian, stand as surfing’s Sophocles and and Herodotus, respectively.
While you may not get that reference to those ancient heavyweights (I summoned them by Googling “greatest Greek playwright” and “greatest Greek historian”), Finnegan probably would: his prose is laced with allusions to James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Homer, Shakespeare, Melville. “I felt like Pip, the cabin-boy in Moby Dick,” he writes after a close call at a break called Rice Bowl, “who falls overboard and is rescued but loses his mind, undone by visions of the ocean’s infinite malice and indifference.”
Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery. I give you three Finnegan passages, on three different waves:
• Of his first ride at the Fijian island of Tavarua, an internationally known break that he all but discovered—he was one of the first nine people to surf it: “As the tide peaked, something very odd happened. The wind quit and the water, already extremely clear, became more so…. Approaching waves were like optical illusions. When I caught one and stood up, it disappeared. I was flying down the line but all I could see was brilliant reef streaming under my feet. It was like surfing on air. … I had to surf by feel. This was truly dreamlike.”
• On the South African break called Jeffreys Bay: “It’s a facey wave, a broad canvas for sweeping long-radius turns, including cutbacks toward the hook…. [It is] a reeling wall, peeling continuously for hundreds of yards. My pale blue New Zealand pintail loved that wave.”
• On the thick, daunting waves at Kirra, Down Under: “The sets looked smaller than they were, seeming to drift almost aimlessly onto the bar outside the jetty, then suddenly standing up taller and thicker than they should have, hiccupping, and finally unloading in a ferocious series of connectable sections, some of the waves going square with power.”
Finnegan is a virtuoso wordsmith, but the juice propelling this memoir is wrung from the quest that shaped him. A good chunk of the book is devoted to the four years he spent abroad, poring over distressed old nautical maps in search of promising breaks; drawing the marrow from life and the stories from natives he meets from the South Pacific to Indonesia to Africa.
While the accounts of the waves he makes—or fails to make, and which then pummel him—are engrossing, Barbarian Days transcends mere surf porn. It is a piscine, picaresque coming-of-age story, seen through the gloss resin coat of a surfboard. Finnegan’s drop-knee cutback, his mastery of nose-riding, are suddenly antiquated around 1967, when he watches an Australian pioneer named Bob McTavish catch an almost infinite wave at Rincon, near Santa Barbara. “My eye actually had trouble following the burst of speed that each banking bottom turn produced. The rider would be suddenly ten yards ahead of where he was supposed to be, according to the physics of surfing as I understood them.”
Finnegan’s was a front row seat on the dawn of the so-called shortboard revolution, which he deftly slots into context alongside that era’s accompanying upheaval. “Across the West, with its restless youth, a great many things—sex, society, authority—were being rethought or sharply questioned, and the little world of surfing rose, in its way, to the insurrectionary moment.”
Barbarian Days abounds with this kind of satisfying fare, sociological meat on the bones of whatever surfing expedition the author happened to be undertaking. The book reaches critical mass when he arrives in South Africa in 1980, the heyday of apartheid. While he originally intends to do some car-camping and find the best surfing beaches, that troubled country has other plans for him. Short of cash, he takes a job teaching at an all-black school outside of Capetown. Diverging from the syllabus, to the consternation of his fellow instructors—this was a time of uprising and ferment in the country—he teaches classes on the U.S Bill of Rights. He meets, and befriends, student leaders of the protest movement, one of whom, an activist named Mandy Sanger, encourages him to return to the States “and write what I could usefully write.” Later, when he phones Sanger, her mother picks up, tearfully informing him that her daughter has been detained by agents of South Africa’s dreaded Special Branch.
Six years later, in 1986, Finnegan’s first book, Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, was selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of that year’s 10 best nonfiction books. He was on his way.
Barbarian Days works, it never stalls or sideslips, because the surfing is always a means to some other, more adult, more substantial, more interesting end.
Yet its childlike appeal, the siren song of a promising set, never fades for him (nor, as a result, for us.) There is Finnegan, barely 100 pages in, explaining that by the time he was 15 he’d plateaued as a surfer. “My rapid progress stopped when I got interested in the rest of the world…. The old nothing-else-truly-matters obsession was in abeyance.”
He should try explaining that to the 50-something Finnegan who finds himself back in Tavarua 330-or-so pages later, pulling into a double-overhead beast with just a tad too much hubris. After the ensuing, violent wipeout, the author “coughed and saw blood. It was pooling low in my throat.” After taking careful inventory, and against the advice of the Fijian boatman accompanying him, he paddles back out for more waves.