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Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life


Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

The art of he’e nalu (surfing) was kept alive in Hawaii after its ritual aspects were all but expunged by 19th-century Christian missionaries, as much offended by the barbaric near-nakedness of its practitioners as by their apparent sinful pleasure in riding the sea on narrow planks. Here, William Finnegan --- a New Yorker staff writer and the author of such significant works as CROSSING THE LINE: A Year in the Land of Apartheid --- explores his personal passion for he’e nalu.

In 1978, when he was 25 years old with $5,000 in the bank, Finnegan, who had been raised in a surfing-friendly family --- first in California and later, for a time, in Hawaii --- set out to surf the world. With various fellow surfers and girlfriends (one of whom pronounced him “mad as a two-bob watch”), he sought surging waters in the South Pacific, Australia, Asia and Africa, once almost alone on a tiny island, but more often competing with thousands of “wave-obsessed” surfers and fighting for a ride. He later admitted to himself that he peaked as a surfer when he was 26, in Indonesia, where he “felt immortal” riding the big waves.

"Filled with exotic surfing slang-uage and rhapsodic descriptions of water, sand, rocks and air, BARBARIAN DAYS will attract armchair surfers and real wave riders alike."

In the course of his quest, Finnegan began to write, and his writing would take a turn towards journalism in South Africa, where he taught in a “colored” school and started to see some human issues more compelling than the strongest tidal swells. In Cape Town, he sold his “blue pintail” surfboard; back in the US, he gave up surfing to write for long periods, but returned to the sea again and again as an addict to his drug.

Finnegan deftly describes such phenomena as “the Surfing Social Contract,” that unspoken pecking order that sorts itself out on crowded beaches so that everyone knows when, where and how often they will be able to venture out. Almost constantly injured, he recalls once trying to memorize a first aid manual. He instinctively sensed that he must remain positive, strong and brave because “Panic was the first step…to drowning.”

Finnegan writes, in a manner that takes both science and poetry into account, of “arcane relationships, like the one between tide and consistency, or swell direction and nearshore bathymetry.” Gradually drawn to write as powerfully as to surf, he identifies this dissonance within himself as the process of growing up. As a writer, he chased dangerous stories (running afoul of slavers while writing about human trafficking); as a surfer, he chased hurricanes (“I caught the front edge of Irene at Montauk”). He finally had to acknowledge some weaknesses that age brings, and though he still surfs, he also has reverted to swimming laps at an indoor pool to stay in shape, saying, “I just want to be able to paddle.”

Filled with exotic surfing slang-uage and rhapsodic descriptions of water, sand, rocks and air, BARBARIAN DAYS will attract armchair surfers and real wave riders alike. Finnegan rode the cultural waves of his youth and brought an ethos back home.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on July 24, 2015

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
by William Finnegan

  • Publication Date: April 26, 2016
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143109391
  • ISBN-13: 9780143109396