A Scene from Childhood in ‘Barbarian Days’

Let’s take a close look at the opening of the California Book Club’s July 2021 selection.

william finnegan as a boy in hawaii
William Finnegan

Barbarian Days—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its July 15 gathering (at 5:30 p.m. Pacific time)—chronicles William Finnegan’s incredible enthrallment with surfing, which began when he was a child in California and Hawaii, where his father worked as a TV producer. The memoir chronologically follows his adventurous adult years, as he surfs across the world in such places as Fiji and Australia. While surfing is at the heart of Barbarian Days, Finnegan does not take us straight into the environs of the water at the beginning of the book; in fact, he first places readers inside the landscape of his early education.

“I had never thought of myself as a sheltered child. Still, Kaimuki Intermediate School was a shock,” Finnegan writes. “We had just moved to Honolulu, I was in the eighth grade, and most of my new schoolmates were ‘drug addicts, glue sniffers, and hoods’—or so I wrote to a friend back in Los Angeles. That wasn’t true. What was true was that haoles (white people; I was one of them) were a tiny and unpopular minority at Kaimuki.”

In just five sentences, Finnegan conveys the social, political, and racial landscape in which he found himself during the late 1960s. Not only is the geographical context important (as this is the place where Finnegan encounters some of his most formative waves), but the geography informs our sense of time (and thus grounds us in history), which also reveals Finnegan’s acute alienation and what it meant for him to navigate such intricate social plots at a young age. In many ways, Finnegan gathering his bearings at a new school, in a new place, allows readers to enter the story as well.

Finnegan’s choice to open Barbarian Days at the scene of his school reminds us that his relationship with surfing cannot be disentangled from the different ties he had to people. While the book’s emotional substance emerges from Finnegan’s attempt to trace his ever-present obsession with surfing, along with the impulses that drove him to seek out a life of writing, none of these exist in a vacuum or were purely self-generated: the people Finnegan surfed with, the people he admired, the rough terrains of his excursions—all this influenced Finnegan’s relationship with surfing as much as the actual vocation did. He found beautiful friendships, which catapulted him into the opaque enigma of the sea, where he learned some of his hardest lessons.

Surfing, then, comes paradoxically to garner many connotations while meaning only one thing—it is the journey that allows Finnegan to know the world and, thus, himself. To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Finnegan on July 15, click here. And tell me what you think of this reading in the Alta Clubhouse!•

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