For a sport so culturally linked to stoners and burnouts, surfing requires a surprising amount of energy. Physical, to be sure—all that paddling and balancing and trying not to drown—but also intellectual, and perhaps emotional too. There are seemingly infinite permutations of reefs, winds, cloud-covers and currents to assess, and a truly passionate surfer’s life is inextricably linked to these permutations, to whether their combination on any given day means everything must be dropped, every obligation sidelined, in the interest of catching a few good waves.
For reasons that have to do mostly with my own lack of prowess at anything requiring corporeal exertion, sporting memoirs aren’t usually my jam. The intricacies of a physical activity (save, I guess, one) feel duly rendered to me as text, even though I know there are hundreds of books that arguably disprove this opinion. But as athletic-endeavor memoirs go, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days made a pretty strong case for itself—it was on a bunch of “Best of 2015” lists last year, aaaannnd it won a Pulitzer.
Now, if you’re thinking that the autobiography of a well-to-do American surfer who wave-hunted around the world sounds a little, I don’t know, white privilege-y, then congratulations: You’ve stumbled onto my chief issue with Barbarian Days. Finnegan is a lovely writer, and makes a compelling argument for authoring a book about himself that, real talk, it’s not like anyone was clamoring for. But for the first two-thirds of BD, it was difficult to shake my frustration with Finnegan’s lack of self-awareness on his position in the global hierarchy of Life Being Pretty Damn Chill.
Of course no one should have to apologize for their lack of hardscrabble past, least of all the literary elite (yeesh, who would we have left?) But it’s not until Finnegan’s global wave-hunt takes him to the developing world that he begins to grasp the fundamental luxury of his ability to lead a minimalist, passion-driven nomadic lifestyle.
“Then there was the self-disgust, which we each wrestled with differently. Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on — well, it would simply never be okay. In an inescapable way, we sucked, and we knew it, and humility was called for.”
Phew. First in Indonesia and then in South Africa, where he spends a few years teaching at the height of apartheid, Finnegan comes to appreciate his own good fortune, and a large part of his story is this personal evolution from a devil-may-care 60s kid into a humble, educated, compassionate person who is professionally devoted to shedding light on parts of the world too often forgotten (Finnegan is now a staff writer for the New Yorker). In this way, surfing is the backdrop to Barbarian Days, a beloved constant amid a broader trajectory that takes Finnegan from Southern California to Hawaii, Indonesia, Australia, South Africa and beyond in search of great waves, but also of a greater purpose in life.
That said, BD is a surfing story, and people who love it tend to love Finnegan’s descriptions of surfing and the ocean most of all. From Sports Illustrated’s review: “Reading this guy on the subject of waves and water is like reading Hemingway on bullfighting; William Burroughs on controlled substances; Updike on adultery.”
For me… not so much. I felt like Finnegan’s descriptions of waves and surfing were thorough, but also quick and technical. To avid surfers they might be wonderfully scene-setting, but I never picked up enough lingo to have a full mental picture of surfing as Finnegan described it. With the exception of one deceptive paragraph in the first 50 pages, where he lays out the basic mechanics of wave formation and behavior, BD assumes a level of comfort with the subject that disappointed me. The way surfing makes Finnegan feel, he nails in prose. But the apparently beautiful logistics of the activity itself never quite landed for me.
On the whole, Barbarian Days reads like a nautical On the Road, with Finnegan as a surfer stand-in for Jack Kerouac’s Sal. Except BD also has an engaging element of discovery, of finding remote and uncharted waves in exotic locales, far from the crowded shores of California and Hawaii. Finnegan explains how surfing carries with it a culture of secrecy and reverence, both for the task of riding waves and the duty of keeping them private, uncrowded. At times, that circumspection makes the book itself feel sacrilegious, like a guide to a secret society with a fold-out map of its clubhouses. But Finnegan always endeavors to treat surfing and its staunchest adherents with the utmost respect, and it shows.
Barbarian Days is the kind of book best read at the beach, with actual waves crashing and actual surfers surfing nearby. It’s a book that begs for visual aids, and the photos Finnegan includes are too few and far between. As ocean books go, I think Susan Casey’s The Wave does a better job of explaining how it all comes together scientifically, and Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave will wreck you emotionally and change the way you look at the water. But Barbarian Days is a strong contender, and Finnegan deserves props for making accessible something so surprisingly technical and insular. As athletic-activity memoirs go, this one is worth diving into (see what I did there?)
TITLE: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
AUTHOR: William Finnegan
PAGES: 464 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Cold New World, Crossing the Line
SORTA LIKE: On the Road meets Eat Pray Love
FIRST LINE: “I had never thought of myself as a sheltered child.”