Caught by the River

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – A Memoir of an Obsession

6th November 2015

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
by William Finnegan
Penguin. Hardback, 464 pages. Out now.

Review by Daniel Crockett

On a very big day, the city itself looked different

I first encountered William Finnegan in his epic New Yorker article ‘Playing Doc’s Games.’ This vital, sparkling piece of longform sits at stark odds with the vast majority of what passes for surf culture, a genre seemingly aimed at ADHD teenagers. Finnegan is a surfer with a vocabulary, unafraid to let language sing, but without overcooking the jargon and falling back on weary memes. Most surf writing is impenetrable to the non-surfing reader, but Finnegan effortlessly transcends this. After reading his journalism, I assumed him a writer first, a surfer second. I had an image of a cosmopolitan sort marooned in the big city and long used to the luxuries of Manhattan. Barbarian Days sets the record straight.

As many great surfing stories do, it starts in Hawaii. It becomes clear very quickly that Finnegan is enchanted by surfing, that he will stray from it as a subject only reluctantly, yet he weaves a precise tapestry of what it was to be a haole kid growing up in the heavy circumstances of Kaimuki Intermediate. Without becoming nostalgia tinged, as memories of beautiful days gone by may do, he weaves a vivid impression of ‘a Hawaiian world with elaborate rules and taboos and secret, hard-won understandings about the land, the ocean, birds, fish, animals, and the gods.’ He also captures the vagaries of the surfing experience beautifully… ‘You could do it with friends, but when the waves got big,’ he writes,’ or you got into trouble, there never seemed to be anyone around.’

It’s a different era he describes, when surfing was full of colourful characters, a healthily bent countercultural backbone that makes now seem even more anodyne. In describing Vietnam: ‘surfing became an excellent refuge from the conflict – a consuming, physically exhausting, joy-drenched reason to live. It also, in its vaguely outlaw uselessness, its disengagement from productive labor, neatly expressed one’s disaffection.’

The language itself is unafraid, littered with joyous morsels. His descriptions burn through to the very heart of the uncomfortable longing that every surfer feels, an entranced yearning, that leaves the reader with descriptions that come as close as any to deciphering the art. It seems that wherever your mind has gone in trying to recognise why this thing has such a hold on you, Finnegan has been there too and can describe it in a far more articulate way. So you are left with sentences that sum it up perfectly, like: ‘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.’

There’s something about surfing that is particularly hard to record, something in the joyous, emerald brilliance of surrendering your heart to the ocean. From end to end of Barbarian Days, Finnegan chips away at the usual covenants, revealing moments of utter beauty, the type one obsessive can render easily to another, but to record in prose so candidly is rarely achieved. On numerous occasions I’ve had high expectations for stories that convey what it is to be inseparably bonded the ocean. To record such things you have to explore the fringes of them yourself, as Finnegan does, surfing rogue, maxed-out (translation: too big) Honolua, on acid. Whilst on Fiji he stumbles on Tavarua, well known now as one of the finest left reefs on the planet. He scares himself witless at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, true wilderness downtown.

You can feel Finnegan’s gradual disengagement with his interior surf fanatic, the gentle recognition that other forces (power, politics) will consume him over time. At these points in the story, surfing takes a back seat. The painful withdrawal, the classic pangs of the addict, are familiar to anyone that has forsaken surfing for the complexities, intrigues and horror of the modern world. You can feel, at points, that the author resents the grip of the ocean and the extension of his thrall to other parts of his life.

Finnegan’s book makes me dream of all the glorious time I spent chasing waves and why, perhaps, I don’t chase them quite so regularly now. He seems to hold a conviction that surfing will be there for him when he comes back, which I suppose it is, almost endlessly, until it isn’t anymore. Yet the waves themselves will keep breaking up the shore, licking the sand, propelling some fleet figure across their face. It is right at the zenith of the book that he stares at the prospect that it will not, forever, be him.

Trying to translate a veteran commitment to surf to your average urban dweller is a hiding to nothing. The modern city, with its constant fluctuations of trend and geography, is not designed for a surfer to thrive. The city demands all, surfing demands all. It’s rare for people outside the nebulous bubble of the surfing industry to thrive, to live complete lives full of culture, whilst nurturing a full time addiction. We all hanker after simplicity, but the perfect wave is as maddening and various as any addiction, to money, power or freedom. The tangible feeling of Barbarian Days is that William Finnegan has spanned these borders, put a leg either side of them, and navigated a clear course, offsetting one passion against the other and winning, more or less. 

Some of my favourite chunks of pure surf writing happen when Finnegan finds his way to the Atlantic island of Madeira, long known for its big, brutal waves. Once home to an insane, big-wave pointbreak called Jardim Do Mar (tragically destroyed by sea defences), you feel that the author has met surfing conditions that match his significant experience and he becomes hooked to the brutal heft of the waves even as his physical strength starts to waver. Every hairball session on the island is recounted in splendid detail. Between surfs, it’s clear his journalistic career at The New Yorker and beyond has boomed, though he only fleetingly touches on his travels to war zones and surfer’s ability to move calmly through highly-pressured situations. The vital details of his life and relationships flow by quickly, passed over for detailed explorations of the balance between a Manhattan existence and an addiction to chasing waves.

I finished Barbarian Days in a setting Finnegan would thoroughly approve of, camped out under the stars by a ruined croft in the Orkney Islands, devoting the days to surfing a slightly frightening wave with a tendency to go dry on the inside. I found the book so woven with my own life, choices and devotions that it was hard to read it objectively. It was like reading a much more exciting version of my own autobiography. If you want to learn about both the satisfaction of a surfing life and the toll that this devotion demands, close read this book: it absolutely defines the genre.

Daniel Crockett on Caught by the River