Finnegan, William. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. New York: Penguin, 2015. Pp. 447. Black and white photos. $27.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Tolga Ozyurtcu
Surfers are a fickle lot: millions of people singularly obsessed with something that has been around for thousands of years, who do not really agree about anything. Surfing is: a sport, not a sport, a lifestyle, a religion, a commune with nature, an art, a craft, a science, a transcendental experience, the best natural high. It depends on whom you ask, but no one is necessarily wrong. That all of these definitions are more or less true says as much about the way we make sense of our physical experience as it does about the allure of wave riding. While this is great for surfing itself, it has lukewarm literary consequences. Most surf writing is esoteric and insular—only of interest to surfers—or an overly-romanticized take on surfing as nature/lifestyle/religion/etc., or a combination of both. There are of course, excellent surf writers—Matt Warshaw, John Severson, just about anyone published in the Surfer’s Journal—and an expanding canon of surf literature. Ignoring the insular texts, the romantic approach of “surfing as _____” is not inherently flawed, but suffers when the chosen metaphor becomes a device for the author to avoid the task of translating a unique bodily experience to text worth reading.
To be fair, it is easy to romanticize something you love (other guilty parties: food and travel writers). Thus, the most striking quality of William Finnegan’s recent memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, is the author’s ability to dig deep (sometimes very deep) into his lifelong existential love affair with surfing while keeping the romantic-metaphoric impulse at bay. At its best, Barbarian Days reveals the surfing experience as more than the sum of its tropes, not as a lifestyle, but as life itself.
It takes a skilled writer to craft engaging prose from the “you-had-to-be-there” experiences and Finnegan’s credentials speak for themselves. An award winning journalist and staff writer for the New Yorker since 1987, the brunt of Finnegan’s work has found him embedded in zones of turmoil: wars in Mozambique, South Sudan, El Salvador; apartheid and socio-political upheaval in South Africa. These experiences have produced a significant body of reporting and four books (one on Mozambique, two on South Africa, and 1998’s Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country, about the darker strains of teenage life in the US).
Many of these locales—especially South Africa—appear throughout Barbarian Days, and Finnegan’s development as a writer provides a sub-narrative in the memoir, but he ultimately stays true to his title: this is a book about surfing, and a good one at that. Beginning with Finnegan’s navigation of the ethnically charged social scene of his Honolulu middle school in 1966 (one good strategy for assimilating as a haole newcomer: be a decent surfer), the first third of the book covers an early life split between southern California and Hawaii; early memories of childhood on the fringe of the bubbling megalopolis of 1950s Los Angeles, his father’s work in television and film leading to the first years in Hawaii, back to California, back to Hawaii. An interstitial period of college and a four-year stint as a Southern Pacific brakeman in northern California set the stage for an itinerant adulthood: the 26-year old Finnegan and his friend Bryan Di Salvatore chasing waves throughout the South Pacific and Australia; scraping by in Indonesia, deliriously feverish in a Thai hospital; an extended stay in South Africa beginning in 1980, teaching in a high school for black students, inspired to help fight the injustices of apartheid, frustration with his naïve efforts. A period of relative stability in mid-80s San Francisco, entrenched in the surf scene at the menacing and unpredictable Ocean Beach break; the creeping return of surfer’s wanderlust and explorations of the Portuguese island of Madeira beginning in 1994; the memoirist as father and family man in New York today, stealing away to ride Long Island waves in a body that is beginning to admit its age.
On the whole, modern surfers are a nostalgic and selfish bunch, longing for the halcyon days of undiscovered waves and empty lineups. Born in 1952, as the Malibu scene was reaching the critical mass that begat Gidget and the global surf boom of the early 1960s, Finnegan’s life in the water is perfectly timed to stoke the jealousy of younger surfers. He was “there”: surfing Hawaii and California in the post-boom glory days, witnessing the Australian-led shortboard revolution, pulling into the perfect waves of Madeira before the surfing world caught on. But timing isn’t everything. Befitting a chronicler of conflict, Finnegan’s most envy-inducing surf adventures come from his willingness to put himself in situations that are a hazy mix of fantasy and the unknown. His time in the South Pacific, a loosely planned surfabout on a shoestring budget, is a take on the most unrealized meta-dream in all of surfing: nothing to do but ride empty waves and sip on fresh coconut juice, maybe fall in love with a native woman. For Finnegan, there were amazing, empty waves (he is among the first to surf the legendary Tavarua!), there was coconut juice, too. Encountering the native women is an enlightening experience. There is flirtation and occasional desire, but there is also the nagging self-awareness of fantasy giving way to complex reality: the frank realization that courtship is as complicated in paradise as it is everywhere else, that the same goes for making sense of yourself. This is where Finnegan’s writing shines, teasing out the highs and the lows of the mythical endless summer, avoiding granting too much mystic power to any one wave or moment. Like wave-riding, the pursuit of surfing follows an unpredictable rhythm. The spiritual trip of sipping kava according to tribal rituals and the exhilaration of locating a new wave using an old nautical chart punctuate bouts of boredom, tropical disease, the negotiation of foreign cultural norms, homesickness, bickering with your only companion, and the very real danger of riding of unfamiliar waves.
In Finnegan’s tight prose, the wide-ranging appeal of surfing emerges not from its potential for metaphysical interpretation, but from the sport’s approximation of life as a risky journey of limited agency and grappling with the unknown. Finnegan adeptly captures the risk in surfing—his detailed tales of fear and anxiety on the waves greatly outnumber those of perfect tube rides. He also nails the total lack of certainty that lies at surfing’s heart. No amount of skill can overcome nature’s mercy. Waves do not break on command, even familiar breaks behave unpredictably. Even in good conditions, there are no guarantees: boards are broken, crowds create scarcity, locals give you bad information, sometimes you just can’t get to the beach.
For an extended meditation on surfing, Barbarian Days remains accessible to non-surfers and offers a rewarding read to fans of memoirs and travel writing. Finnegan’s reflections on writing, friendship, and love provide texture and offer rhythmic breaks from the pure surf writing. While an intensely personal story, Barbarian Days is also a useful text for sport and leisure scholars. For the uninitiated, Finnegan’s memoir provides a nice overview of the historical-global trajectory of surfing since the 1950s, as well as an introduction the subcultural norms and social mores of the surf world: appropriate behavior in the water, the nuanced limits of bragging. Those with a specific interest in surfing will find an insightful chronicle of the sport from the perspective of a dedicated aficionado, rather than the reminiscences of a surfing professional or industry lifer. Finnegan’s account lends rich detail to periods and places long enshrined in surfing lore and gets us as close to the viscerality of surfing as the constraints of time, space, and language allow. To accomplish this with minimal romanticism is a generous gesture from a keen observer and skilled writer; Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life surely deserves a place in the surfing canon.
Tolga Ozyurtcu, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor with the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. He teaches in the programs in Sport Management and Physical Culture and Sport Studies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.