Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
by William Finnegan

Reviewed by Adam Karr


Published by Penguin Press, 2015   |   pages

“We were looking straight into the wave.  It was coming from the northwest, having wrapped nearly 180 degrees.  It was a long, tapering – a very long, very precisely tapering – left.  The walls were dark gray against a pale gray sea.  This was it.  The lineup had an unearthly symmetry.  Breaking waves peeled so evenly that they looked like still photographs.  There seemed to be no sections.  This was it.  Staring through the binoculars, I forgot to breathe for entire six-wave sets.  This, by God, was it.”

Barbarian Days, William Finnegan’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, is a non-fiction bildungsroman of sorts that charts his maturation from a young boy to a sixty-something war journalist and New Yorker staff writer through the lens of his lifelong relationship with surfing.  Paralleling Finnegan’s life, from his childhood in 1950s and 60s California and Hawaii to his present life as a sixty-something war journalist and writer, Barbarian Days also charts a history of big wave surfing. Beneath it all, the individual breaks, relationships and broader international political developments, Finnegan’s memoir documents the ways in which surfing functions as the author’s motor pathway of kinesthetic growth, one that conflates physical, epistemic, spiritual, and socio-political perspectives in the author’s persistent search for Finnegan’s own personal and ethical version of science’s “grand unified theory.”

Finnegan tells his tale chronologically, each chapter highlighting a specific location and period of his life.  His journey begins in southern California, where he first discovered the waves when visiting family friends on Newport Beach.  After his father accepted a job offer in Hawaii, Finnegan immersed himself in the intense, and at times demimonde subculture of the island’s competitive surf lineups.  He returns to California for college and a brief but rewarding period of blue collar work on the railroad before returning to Hawaii and, compelled by the chimeric “perfect wave,” heads West to circumnavigate the globe.  The trip lasts several years, carrying him through Polynesia, South East Asia, and Africa, supported by little more than outdated nautical charts of the Polynesian atolls and a utopian vision for social equality rooted in his romantic relationship with the surf.  He returns to the U.S. – from the East as he had promised himself – and begins his career as a writer.  But the call of the waves is persistent.  He lives for a period in San Francisco where he befriends big wave surfing legend Mark Renneker. At books end, the present day, he is living with his wife and daughter in New York, where he surfs on Long Island’s south shore and departs for weeklong excursions to surfing paradise Medeira when possible.

Though the narrative structure is largely chronological, the prosaic style shifts and evolves through different contexts and epochs.  Finnegan recalls his childhood with clarity and pleasant nostalgia, filtering memories according to meaning, each one inextricably tied to his experience on the waves.  His relationship with his family, his passive toleration of school, and the friendships he forms in his youth orbit around surfing as the fulcrum.  The tone turns ambivalent in his young adult years during his Westward circumnavigation of the globe in search of “endless winter.”  His variation on this iconic, perhaps even clichéd “endless summer” is intentional and rich with significance.  A proleptic tension enters that oscillates subtly between playful self-deprecation and moments of profundity as he recalls the struggle to find purpose amidst his youthful idealism. As Finnegan matures, so does the prose; the passion of his juventud gives way to poignant recognition and insight.  At times these insights are funny, such as the moment he abandoned his childish ambition to “sleep with women from many lands,” and at other times cutting, as when Teka, their host in Tonga, shatters his illusion of originality by accurately describing him as “exactly like every other beach bum.”  In the later parts of the narrative, Finnegan’s “obsession” with surfing persists, but the relationship changes irreparably.  He no longer fetishizes the chimera of the virginal wave.  The “dopamine rush that was both familiar and rare” still drives him to bigger and more exotic surf, but that drive evolves from the personal compulsion and vehicle for his utopian social project to the mosaic of imperceptible distinctions between his love for surfing, his devotion to his family, and his commitment to social justice.

Interspersed throughout are synaesthetic descriptions of Finnegan’s experiences on the waves.  Here the language takes on a lyrical, expressionist form to create perennial tensions.  Prose gives way to “code and murmurs” as the sounds, rhythm and movement of the surf form “large pools of awe […] hushing us […] as though we were in church.”  The landscape forms topologically, where fixed points and directions – the “takeoff point”, “channel,” “offshore”, “right” or “frontside”, “A-framed peak with a lovely inside wall, good on southeast winds” – are stretched and twisted by the lyrical descriptions, the organic jargon of surfing, and the inherently chaotic and persistent vicissitude of the ocean.  The ultimate goal, the “perfection fetish,” as he refers to it, is a quasi-philosophical, quasi-spiritual, and endlessly transcendent “symmetry.”

These poetic and transcendent vignettes are lyrically brilliant in their own right, but they do more than merely chart the narrative arc of his “surfing life.”  They reveal, in addition, a deeper duality, one that is at times puckish and at other times harrowing, between Finnegan’s “surfing life” and his search for purpose and meaning.  At each stage of his journey, surfing brings him face-to-face with new social realities.  As a new elementary school student in a working class suburb of Honolulu, the adolescent Finnegan discovered, through his negotiation of the language (mostly pidgin and broken English) and power dynamics of the surfing “line-up,” the privilege and politics of the “unconscious whiteness” of his California upbringing.  Away from school on “The Cliffs,” his local Hawaii surfing spot, his whiteness mattered less than his skill, intuition, and adherence to the unspoken tact that ruled the competition for waves.  The locals were silent and intimidating, but accommodating; they would become his friends, and idols.  It is here in Hawaii that he develops the obsession for surfing that propels him into his near decade long journey around the globe.  Travelling through Guam, Fiji, and Southeast Asia, Finnegan embraces material poverty as a disavowing of Western antisepticism in pursuit of that pantheistic “unearthly symmetry,” but he remains plagued by doubt and guilt over the politics, privilege, and pseudo-colonial aspect of his utopian project.  As desperately as Finnegan tries to distinguish himself as a “traveler” and not a “tourist” across innumerable societies, he must ultimately acknowledge that the “ambient ironies” of the “Asia Trail” made his material white poverty in this world of ubiquitous, variegated poverty “farcical.”

A turning point in his life, and memoir, occurs when he arrives in South Africa and witnesses first hand apartheid’s brutal violence.  Here Barbarian Days’ dual narratives converge as Finnegan puts aside, temporarily, his obsession with surfing to devote the bulk of his efforts to the project of social and political reform that would become his professional life’s calling.  The raw hatred in apartheid’s doctrine of scientific racism – manifesting as intransigent segregation, brutal repression, and bald information control – revealed to Finnegan his previous notion of social justice as conceit.  Surfing – once dual hatted as a personal compulsion and vehicle for his utopian social project – proved incapable of the second, and required redefinition with the first.  Finnegan’s thoughts turn to his new passion for revealing hidden stories of oppression, and surfing becomes a side bar: the “familiar obsession” with the ocean felt “embarrassing, almost ignominious” under the specter of apartheid.  The true purpose and genius of Barbarian Days reveals itself here at the memoir’s midpoint.  The spiritual, “almost Platonic,” siren of the surf collides with Finnegan’s anthropologic bent and insatiable need for not just meaning, but what Nobel Prize winning author Octavio Paz famously refers to as “communion.”  Here in South Africa he decisively consigns surfing to the role of (albeit passionate) hobby. Writing and politics become his purpose.

This newly discovered clarity does not, however, completely extinguish Finnegan’s pursuit of what he playfully calls “the perfect wave, etcetera.”  Upon abandoning his four year journey around the world, he returns to the States, taking up residence in San Francisco where he meets famed big wave surfer Mark Renneker. In Renneker Finnegan encounters his first real big wave surfer, and for the first time fear figures prominently in his descriptions of the surf.  Much of this has to do with his friendship with Mark, an intensely dedicated and fearless surfer with an interminably cheery demeanor, who carries the force of personality to drive any surfing companion to their limits and beyond.  As Finnegan stands on the eerily empty shoreline of Ocean Beach on a cold and drizzling January morning, staring at waves that were “twenty feet at least, probably bigger,” we read for the first time in the memoir that he had “absolutely no desire to go surfing.”  Nonetheless, his relationship with Mark would press him forward as both a surfer and a writer.  He continues to this day to subordinate himself to the ocean, to “the power [and] the juice” of the unpredictable and massively powerful forces of the waves, and alternatingly to the dangers of reporting from forgotten violent corners of the globe – Sudan, South Africa, El Salvador.  But with a wife and daughter, and a clear purpose, an arresting temerity colors surfing’s sublimely familiar “dopamine rush.”  At these points Finnegan seems at a loss to explain what continues to compel him, stating that in both cases, he is simply “trying to make sense of calamities.”

In Barbarian Days final pages Finnegan returns to Tavarua, the once virginal wave in Fiji, as a paying customer to the surfing resort that now occupies it.  A young surfing guide, Inia, asks directly, “Do you know God;” Finnegan murmurs, “not really.”  But as the two surf together that day, the waves seem to demand an answer, as if saying “how can you not?”  Finnegan never offers any more of an answer than the waves do, but for the first time they alone seem enough, imperceptibly close to his relationships, his knowledge of self, his place in the cosmos.  Each time they collide, another universe is born.

Adam Karr graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2005 with a B.S. in International History, and earned a Master of Arts in English from the University of Virginia in 2014. He currently instructs English at West Point.

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