Surfer memoir Barbarian Days is the perfect read to hold on to your summer as it draws to a close
If you have a ghost-white complexion like me, with freckles that connect when kissed by the summer sun, chances are you’ve never been surfing. Venturing to the beach is a hassle in itself; going in the water is typically a hard pass; and trying to surf is out of the question. Outside of the occasional lesson while honeymooning in Hawaii, most never attempt it. That’s fine. You don’t need an inkling of knowledge about surfing to get lost in William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. And after reading this descriptively rich memoir of boyhood, I take solace in knowing that surfing is not a brass ring meant for all to grab. It demands discipline, respect for nature, knowledge of wind patterns, the rawest of nerves, and constant water in your ears. “Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered,” writes Finnegan, and he’s correct, but Barbarian Days lets us peak over the gate, and like the beaches with the best breaking waves, the view is spectacular.
New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan split his childhood between southern California and Hawaii. His father worked as a location scout/producer for Hollywood, where his job frequently took his family to both locales. But no matter where Finnegan was, surfing became his first and most alluring obsession. Growing up, he became a regular at several surfing spots with fascinating characters ranging from intimidating Samoan manchildren in Hawaii to sons of blue-collar workers in California – all of which dug waves like him, creating a bond craved by young men. Finnegan plunges us into this fascinating but also dangerous world of waves, largely unknown in literature. He isn’t interested at all with our previous misconceptions about surfer dudes, how they may not be the most articulate bunch. Finnegan is undoubtedly a surfing intellectual. He illustrates to us how he sees it, how he lives it. He soaks us in this magnetic culture and how it has shaped his life from eight years old to middle age.
The deeper you go into Finnegan’s aptly titled Surfing Life the more envious you become of his journey. He forwent college for a year to live the nomad life in Hawaii and Europe. He worked as a brakeman for a railroad company fresh out of college, chugging up and down the west coast, jotting down material for a novel. He got his Kerouac on by hitchhiking to his friends in Idaho and Montana. He took a four-year surfing sabbatical with his friend, fellow writer Bryan Di Salvatore, traveling from Hawaii through the South Pacific, through Asia, to South Africa where he became an English teacher, back up to Europe, to the United States, hitchhiked back to Montana, and finally flew home to California. The experiences he describes in rich detail, shedding light on corners of the globe we may never get to experience otherwise, make this book a necessary read for armchair travelers. It wasn’t until his stint as an English teacher in South Africa, documenting the evils of apartheid, where Finnegan’s career as a war reporter began, just shy of his thirtieth birthday.
Finnegan’s meditations on the waves he’s surfed and the near-mythological beaches to which he’s traveled – upon his return to the US, he learned through a surfing magazine he had surfed nine of the ten best surfing spots in the world – are nothing short of enchanting. His lexicon of surfing terms never runs dry; his language remains lucid and exhilarating throughout. The book is over four-hundred pages and you almost never read the same wave description twice. With each stint in a different region comes different surfing spots: Cliffs in Honolulu, Tavura in Fiji, Kirra in Australia, Jeffreys Bay in Cape Town, Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and Jardim do Mar in Madeira. He’s spent enough time surfing each of these beaches to learn their nuances. Not all waves are created equal it turns out and different waves require different boards. Surfers have to sit and wait, sometimes for hours, for the waves to break cleanly for them to ride. Finnegan never let that time go to waste, observing with a sharp writer’s eye, the awesome force of the ocean.
Some of Finnegan’s most efficient writing, however, is when he is on land. Each chapter chronicles a different place he’s been, populated with people he’s met along the way. His longer stint in Australia working in kitchens reveals to him how much more mainstream surfing was there as opposed to America (surfers were seen as the fringe in the US, before corporate culture recognized its marketability.) His longer stint in South Africa has him finally slowing down to consider his career, feeling his surfing odyssey coming to an end. The strength of these passages are where we see the changes in Finnegan as the years go by, each profound evolution bookended by surf sessions. His job at The New Yorker took him to several hostile hotspots around the world, but we only hear about such exploits in passing; it is his surfing where he finds the roots of his curious risk-taking. “But did I surf to scare myself? No. I loved the power, the juice, but only up to a point . . . I paddled out looking for a dopamine rush that was both familiar and rare, that required nerve and experience but had nothing in common with terror.”
Why you should read this book: In the last days of summer, when the days get shorter, the water gets colder, and the office begins to beckon again, Barbarian Days is every glorious summer you’ve ever had or will ever have compacted into page form. It’s a cruelty I’m telling you this in late August rather than early June, but it’s a worthy reading companion to ease you into the doldrums of autumn (a must-read to the sounds of the ocean – trust me.) Finnegan’s prose paints you wondrous images of turquoise waves and glistening surfboards – it’s irresistible (this is the only book I’ve read where the reviews are as beautifully written as the book, clearly enthusiastic about the material.) But not only that, it’s a grander story of boyhood washing away into adulthood, how Finnegan chased waves to keep the latter at bay by constantly serving the former. You feel Finnegan’s disappointment when the secluded beaches he once surfed become overpopulated beach resorts, swarming with tourists – waves he’ll never ride again. But summer can’t last forever (though the peak surfing season is winter.) If you fancy yourself a wanderlust – you can even fake it – and the concrete jungle seems a little too concrete, treat your peeling summer skin to Barbarian Days and be prepared to spontaneously book a beach vacation.
Postscript: Here’s a clip of Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa surfing the biggest wave ever recorded, in case you underestimate how dedicated you need to be to the craft. A holy-shit moment if ever such a thing existed.