Book review: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life - 'meaning of life' in breaks

New Yorker writer William Finnegan's half-century adventure chasing the best breaks across the Pacific, in South Africa and the US, is beautifully told, and much more than the story of a boy and his wave

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 11:55pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 11:55pm


The lift of a wave rushing across the shallows until it rises and pitches in an explosion of foam can quickly make an addict of anyone fortunate enough to be along for the ride. And once William Finnegan sampled the sudden acceleration in the curl of a breaking wave, he found his passion.

In Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, the award-winning writer for The New Yorker describes an obsession that began in the mid-1960s in Southern California and blossomed in Hawaii, where Finnegan had to join an all-white gang for protection at school even as he surfed with his closest Hawaiian friends. But that was just the start of a lifetime of chasing waves through the islands of the Pacific and apartheid South Africa, in the frigid waters off San Francisco and the somewhat less intimidating reefs and beach breaks of Long Island and New Jersey.

Finnegan's epic adventure, beautifully told, is much more than the story of a boy and his wave, even if surfing serves as the thumping heartbeat of his life.

His time in Hawaii as a young teen is a sociological study of multiculturalism, where surviving a series of fist fights at a tough Honolulu school would win him grudging respect. When his family moved back to the Los Angeles area, the commercial capital of the post- Gidget surf boom, Finnegan was in the middle of it, spending every possible minute at the beach, honing his skills even as surfing - as well as the society around it - began to change.

A degree meant getting a job, but only as a means of funding Finnegan's Pacific travel plans with a friend, another aspiring writer. With maps and charts and a modest bankroll, they moved from island to island, searching for places that could catch and tame open-ocean swells and send them hissing down a perfectly shaped reef. Incredibly, they found it after hitching a ride with local fishermen to a tiny, heart-shaped island in Fiji called Tavarua, where they shared the water with poisonous snakes.

"The wave had a thousand moods, but in general it got better as it got bigger. At six feet [about 180cm], it was easily the best wave either of us had ever seen," Finnegan writes. "Scaled up, the mechanical regularity of the speeding hook gained soul, its roaring, sparkling depths and vaulted ceiling like some kind of recurring miracle, the tracery on the surface and the ribbed power of the wall full of delicate, now visible detail, each wave suffused with the richness of a one-off."

And when the waves grew bigger still, "What I struggled with then was adrenaline overflow ... I would find myself gasping, heart slamming, mind juddering. What to do?"

Surf, of course.

Eventually, though, even perfection lost its hold, and Finnegan and his travel companion, Bryan, set off for Australia, maybe the most surf-stoked place on earth. For Finnegan, it was a revelation.

"The country had never interested me. From a distance, it always seemed terminally bland," he writes. "Up close, though, it was a nation of wisenheimers - smart-mouthed diggers with no respect for authority."

He and Bryan braved the Northern Territory, named the Never Never by the Australians. It was a place so barren that they met only one vehicle, a cattle truck, while travelling 322km on a dirt road. The washboard ruts shook their car so relentlessly that the back window fell into the door.

But each stop was an anthropologist's dream - a full immersion into local life, beliefs and customs, with Finnegan and his friend eager to learn all they could.

Eventually, the friend decided to go home. But Finnegan pressed on, ending up in South Africa, camping along the coast before finally taking a job at a black school in Cape Town, teaching English, geography and "religious instruction". His students talked of throwing off the constraints of white control. And Finnegan, who came of age in the turmoil of the '60s, was with them, though his world was far different from theirs.

"This was 1980, still the heyday of apartheid. I continued to do my informal interviews of randomly encountered local people. Here those yielded great hauls of weirdness: inscrutable evasions from police, black workers and country folk" and "the most relaxed and profound racism from fellow white campers", Finnegan writes.

After South Africa, Finnegan felt the tug of home. He married eventually, settled in New York, raised a child and built a career. And he surfed. 

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (Penguin)

Tribune News Service