Barbarian Days is veteran New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan’s attempt to grapple with the hold surfing has had over his life. Finnegan has surfed since his childhood in California and his intimate knowledge of many of the world’s best breaks together with his acclaimed writing career makes this a welcome addition to the barren field of literary surf writing, a genre as elusive as an empty line-up at Bondi.
There are a number of reasons why so few good surfing titles exist, but perhaps it was best summed up by Andy Martin in his cult classic Walking on Water: “If you could surf why would anyone ever write?” Surfing is an addiction for which all else appears to pale in comparison.
Barbarian Days charts Finnegan’s life in relation to the breaks he has known, from his childhood in Hawaii and California in the 1950s and 1960s to the present day as a 60-plus-year-old successful journalist. Perhaps tellingly his famed New Yorker essay, “Playing Doc’s Games” – published in 1992 and long-held as a masterpiece of literary surf writing – lies largely unchanged in the centre of the book and acts as a fulcrum for his exploration of the surfing obsession. It was then that Finnegan, in his early 30s living in San Francisco, began to work professionally as a writer and when an ambivalence towards surfing seeped in after having spent the first part of his life fully devoted to the waves.
As a journalist Finnegan’s style is observational. He rarely succumbs to heavy internal musing, preferring to subtly probe through exacting description of the people and places that surround him. The most compelling sections are those exploring his relationships with others – his girlfriend Caryn, who agrees to accompany him to Maui after he drops out of university to commit to conquering Honolua Bay, and his years of wandering through the South Pacific and Australia with fellow writer Bryan Di Salvatore.
Part memoir, part travel narrative, part social commentary, Barbarian Days provides the non-surfing reader with plenty of dry-land interest, as well as an explanation of surfing mechanics. For the surfing reader Finnegan’s years of drifting during the formative period of Western surfing culture as the quintessential youth chasing waves are rich with adventure and the requisite amount of nostalgia. BT
Corsair, 464pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2015 as "William Finnegan, Barbarian Days ". Subscribe here.