William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days

To begin with, a confession: I have an abiding fear of the ocean. That fear has not prevented me from swimming in ocean waters – albeit close to the shores – or venturing out in boats of various sizes, either to fish or search for whales, but neither have I ever escaped the low-frequency thought in the back of my head that warns me of the ocean’s vast size and strength, or those fathomless depths we have only just begun to explore. Surfers, then, have always seemed deeply heroic to me, making sport on something as powerful and fickle as a Greek god, and doing so with obvious enjoyment. To my mind, they belong alongside mountain climbers and skydivers in that category of humans who seem to have transcended fear itself. William Finnegan, a New Yorker staff writer turned memoirist, would deny that claim, but his life as he lived it seems to contradict him: apart from chasing waves across the world, often by himself, in uncharted waters, he spent his working years as a war reporter, following black reporters in apartheid-riven South Africa, reporting on the front lines of the civil war in Mozambique, and chasing down kidnapping gangs in Mexico. Barbarian Days, published in 2015, is a memoir of his surf obsession, and the people and places he encountered in the never-ending pursuit of fresh waves.

Finnegan’s childhood was an auspicious one, as far as surfing is concerned: he grew up in California, near the coast, but his father’s job, as a television producer for the series Hawaii Five-O, meant he spent years in Hawaii as well, the birthplace of surfing. Even the timing was providential: born in 1952, Finnegan came of age during the 1960s, when surfing burst into prominence as a counter-cultural leisure activity, destined to attract America’s youth.

Postwar Southern California became the capital of the emerging surf industry largely because a local aerospace boom provided both new lightweight materials for board-building and an outsized generation of kids like me, with the time and inclination to learn to surf. Not that the local authorities encouraged us. Surfers were typecast as truants and vandals. Some beach towns actually banned surfing. And the trope of the surf bum – brother to the ski bum, sail bum, climbing bum – has never been retired, for good reasons.

For devotees, however, surfing is much more than a hobby, and despite the best efforts of marketing campaigns by the likes of ESPN and the X-Games, something other than a sport. For Finnegan, it is a craft, a passion, an obsession, a calling:

[…] my utter absorption in surfing had no rational content. It simply compelled me; there was a deep mine of beauty and wonder in it. Beyond that, I could not have explained why I did it. I knew vaguely that it filled a psychic cavity of some kind – connected, perhaps, with leaving the church, or with, more likely, the slow drift away from my family – and that it had replaced many things that came before it. I was a sunburnt pagan now. I felt privy to mysteries.

Surfing, in Finnegan’s telling, is a quasi-mystical endeavour, connected, in some unarticulated way, with the wider spirit of the times, which was radically opposed to the life script of generations past: marriage, work and family. “Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.” The surf bum might scorn convention, might work only to fund his travels, but he also wakes up at the crack of dawn to test the waters and claim the best waves for himself. Growing up in Los Angeles – “the John Wayne Gacy of cities, smothering its children with a toxic beach towel of poisoned air, mindless growth, and bad values” – seems to have added to Finnegan’s desire to escape, and so Barbarian Days doubles as a travel memoir, taking us to Maui, Honolulu, Australia, Madeira and Ethiopia, not to mention countless small islands across the South Pacific. Many of these places are today synonymous with boutique resorts and travel tourism, making them “spoiled” in the eyes of many travellers, but Finnegan arrives before the richer international community discovered (and commodified) their natural beauty, and so we are treated also to a glimpse into the pre-globalized world, before the ubiquity of denim and cell phones, and these passages are as interesting and compelling as the surfing descriptions.

The surfing passages, however, deserve special mention, both because they enable the average person, who has never ridden a way before, to share in the experience, and because they offer the best opportunity for Finnegan to flex his literary talents. Some representative passages:

The setup was the same one we had surfed in the spring: long outside wall with warbles and sections, then the big bowling section of the main takeoff, then a roaring blue freight train all down the reef, deep into the bay. It was, once again, a glorious wave, with hues in its depths so intense they felt like first editions – ocean colors never seen before, made solely for this wave, perhaps never to be seen again.

Or:

As the tide peaked, something very odd happened. The wind quit and the water, already extremely clear, became more so. It was midday, and the straight-overhead sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended above the reef, floating on a cushion of nothing, unable even to judge the depth unless we happened to kick a coral head. Approaching waves were like optical illusions. You could look straight through them, at the sky and sea and sea bottom behind them. And 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.

Finnegan renders the balletic movements of surfer and board comprehensible and, in the book’s more harrowing moments, we get treated to vivid descriptions of the awesome power of the ocean. On more than one occasion, he only narrowly escapes being crushed by an outsized wave, or dashed against a rocky shoreline. He even spends some time in the company of big wave surfers, a different breed entirely, who scorn the predictable waves of their fair weather compatriots in search of storm-tossed monsters, measured not in feet but in multiples of a man’s height.

Technology has revolutionized both surfing and surf coverage. Neoprene suits, lighter boards and the ability to “tow in” on jet-skis have opened up bigger waves in colder waters, and miniature cameras and drones give spectators a visceral experience of the power and exhilaration of surfing (see, for example, this video). And yet I have no doubt that Finnegan’s Barbarian Days will claim an irreplaceable spot in surfer lore, beckoning to all those enchanted by the ocean’s magic and the lure of a life lived outside convention.