Why You Should Read This: ‘Barbarian Days’

barbarian days, william finnegan
Penguin Books

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan is a work of agony and ecstasy. Its subject—subject? grail is a more accurate description—is surfing, which the author first learned to do at age 10 and still pursues to this day. “Surfing,” he writes, “always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sports I knew. You could do it with friends, but when the waves got big, or you got into trouble, there never seemed to be anyone around.”

Finnegan knows it’s a truism to frame sports as a metaphor for living; this is the last thing on his mind. Rather, he means to evoke how something—an activity, an obsession, a set of circumstances—can stir a more complex engagement with the world. The title, which riffs on the Edward St. Aubyn quote Finnegan uses as an epigraph, suggests the danger of overlooking our more elemental selves. “He had become so caught up in building sentences,” St. Aubyn writes, “that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour landing on a page.”

What Finnegan is after, then, is something essential, the fierce experience of being alive. It’s a state he associates with the ocean, which emerges in the memoir as a mercurial god. Surfing is a crucible, “a track that led away from citizenship, in the ancient sense of the word, toward a scratched-out frontier where we would live as latter-day barbarians. This was not the daydream of the happy idler. It went deeper than that.” That this can be isolating goes without saying. “I slipped away from my family at an early age,” Finnegan continues, “and surfing was my escape route.”

Barbarian Days explores this back-and-forth with exceptional focus; only rarely does Finnegan emerge from behind the curtain of his narrative. The truth is there’s no need to do so because such reflections come encoded in the form and movement of a memoir that is, as much as anything, about the necessity of remaining in the moment, of taking each wave or experience as it comes. “Did I still doubt?” Finnegan wonders in the book’s closing sequence. “ ‘We will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam.’ ”•

Penguin Books


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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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