‘Barbarian Days’ Without End

The enduring power of William Finnegan’s memoir depends on far more than a passion for surfing.

william finnegan

There are 840 miles of coastline in California, some of which you can surf. Stretches of it are simply legendary. Rincon in Santa Barbara. Trestles in Orange County. Mavericks and the gnarly waves at Half Moon Bay. Beach Boys songs aside, these are the reasons, if you live in the state, people back East ask: Do you surf? Duck into a bookshop, though, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find literature as spectacular as the lore. So what happens between the ocean and the land that escapes on the page? Why is an activity that is so beautiful and popular also so indescribable?

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan’s memoir of his lifelong relationship to catching waves, is the extraordinary answer to this question. Drawing on the author’s journals and experiences over 50 years, it reveals startling complexities to an activity so often associated with beach culture. Indeed, Barbarian Days is to the board what Moby Dick was to the whale: it is, among other things, a quest, a lexicon, a travelogue, a bildungsroman, a knowing colonial exegesis, a history of the activity, a tale of male friendships, a study of whiteness, a love poem to the ocean, and an intimate glimpse of a man grappling with his limits and the hint that beyond them is an incomprehensible void.

We begin this epic journey not in California but in Hawaii. A staff writer with the New Yorker for more than 30 years, Finnegan can spin a mise-en-scène opening with the best of them. Thus the book starts in 1966, our hero and his family freshly arrived from Los Angeles in Honolulu, where Finnegan’s father, a TV production manager, works on a variety show program. Despite the teasing, mild torture, and occasional abuse as one of the few haoles (white people) at school, Finnegan—three years into his lifelong surf fever—is in heaven.

Starting here says so much about Finnegan as a writer, and also about why Barbarian Days, published in 2015, will probably last and remain a book for so many people. From the beginning, Finnegan approaches surfing as an outsider, a student, and a strong observer. He instinctively knows this fever that possesses him and others stretches back a long way and into many other cultures.

Surfing, after all, emerged from the Pacific islands, and some accounts go as far back as the fourth century CE. When Hawaii was conquered by Europeans, surfing even had religious import. In one of the book’s few historical interludes, Finnegan reminds us that the Calvinist missionaries led by Hiram Bingham were determined to eradicate the activity. They didn’t, and “from this terrible history modern surfing is descended,” Finnegan writes, “thanks to the few Hawaiians, notably Duke Kahanamoku, who kept the ancient practice of he‘e nalu alive.” After winning a gold medal for swimming in the 1912 Olympics, Kahanamoku put on surfing demonstrations around the world. The activity notably caught on in postwar California.

Surfing wasn’t a sport then…it was just an outsider activity, a kind of path. It made you weird.

We learn this ancient history and the backstory of how Finnegan, before moving to Hawaii, jumped on a longboard and learned to nose-ride (“scurrying…to the front of one’s board—hanging five, hanging ten, defying the obvious physics of flotation and glide”) on the scrubby shore of Newport Beach, California, 10 years old and skinny as a stork. Surfing wasn’t a sport then, taught in school, judged in the Olympics. It was just an outsider activity, a kind of path. It made you weird.

In Honolulu, young Finnegan finally meets his tribe, a few in what turns into a series of friends who are wave-life gurus, too. Barbarian Days tells the story of what these friendships draw out in him, from childhood all the way to late middle age. In Hawaii, from Roddy Kaulukukui and one of his friends, Ford Takara, whose parents own a gas station, young Finnegan learns how to navigate life in and out of the water. How to respect pecking orders. When to back down, when not to give quarter. How to claim his own style. Later, when his family returns to Los Angeles, to Woodland Hills—where he attends William Howard Taft, the neighboring high school to the one Paul Beatty attended— a fine-tuned attentiveness travels with him.

This hyperawareness comes in handy on the water, where Finnegan spends more and more time. It allows him to assess, to judge, and to know when to act in a dynamic world. “Wave judgment is fundamental,” he writes in one memorable section, “but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment were frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now.”

Fair enough: this all sounds straightforward—until Finnegan continues in the vein to break down, in brief, what elements and experience this calculation has been made from:

your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water color; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express.

As Barbarian Days progresses, living outside this realm of intensity becomes less and less tolerable for Finnegan. The 1960s have bled into the 1970s; where is he going? One by one, he drops his attachments to square life. He skips his high school graduation in favor of travel—surely, he realizes in retrospect, a source of worry for his hardworking Irish Catholic parents. He ducks out of daywork to become a brakeman on the railroad. The pay is good, and the stakes are high. You cannot stop paying attention.

The money he saves on the job ends up funding an epic round-the-world trip in search of the ultimate beach, the far frontier of experience. In Maui, Finnegan had made a friend named Bryan after spotting the big “U” of Joyce’s Ulysses in his hand. Later, they reunite for this endless quest. Finnegan admits his own vision of what he was up to: “I wanted to learn new ways to be,” he admits. “I wanted to change. I wanted to feel less existentially alienated, to feel more at home in my skin, as they say, and in the world.”

Finnegan is aware of the figure he casts across this book, especially in his youth as a seeker. The middle-class white kid from L.A. determined to see the limit of the world, or die trying, to maybe meet some exotic women, as he puts it, with an emphasis on the patheticness of the phrase. Going broke in parts of Southeast Asia and on some of the islands in the South Pacific where residents would kill to have some of the privileges he’d thrown away was offensive, and it became more so in retrospect. Finnegan deals with this awareness in reflection and self-deprecation. “Being a rich orang putih in a poor brown world still sucked irredeemably. We, that is, sucked.”

Traveling away from the United States, Finnegan also begins to relearn a way of being masculine, something that emerges from his vulnerability in the ocean and the people he meets. Something changes after he travels through the Pacific islands and sees the desperation of some women there, their vulnerability before traveling pleasure-seekers. Later, in the northwest part of Australia, for example, where the distance between towns is marked in tinnies—as in how many tins of beer one drinks while driving—Bryan and Finnegan pick up two female hitchhikers on their way to a feminist commune. Finnegan immediately falls in with one of them, and he makes the unwise move of visiting her at the all-female retreat after their affair has ended. He gets an earful and is thrown out by police. He admits, “I hadn’t respected her boundaries…. I couldn’t argue with that.”

Barbarian Days is a model, in many ways, for how a book written by a white man who undertook such a journey, and was changed by it, might look and feel, how its author can see around himself and also see himself at the same time—without rewriting the past. For instance, as Finnegan’s travels take him far from the United States, and he awakens politically and ethically, more and more attention is paid to the context of where he has landed, the realities of life as it is lived there, and the figures that he and Bryan cast in the late 1970s.

It’s not clear in his and Bryan’s relationship who is Dean Moriarty and who is Sal Paradise.

Still, though, inexorably, beautifully, and sometimes feverishly, the quest for the wave continues. Drawing on the journal he kept at the time, Finnegan describes the breaks he surfs at Grajagan, in the Indonesian province of East Java, as “big and sectiony and mushy up top,” and another spot in Fiji is so sacred that he and his buddy won’t even mention it to each other by name. Watching better surfers thread barrels and learning whom not to accidentally fade into a wipeout, Finnegan earns his MFA in attention and precision. The increasing risk driving home lessons. “The key to surfing Kirra was entering the wild section at full speed,” he writes in another beautiful passage.

surfing close to the face—pulling in—and then, if you got inside, staying calm in the barrel, having faith that it just might spit you out. It usually didn’t, but I had waves that teased me two, even three times, with the daylight hole speeding ahead, outrunning me, and then pausing and miraculously rewinding back toward me, the spilling lip seemingly twisting like the iris of a camera lens opening until I was almost out of the hole, and then reversing and doing it again, receding in beautiful hopelessness and returning in even more beautiful hope. These were the longest tube rides of my life.

This is a very different kind of MFA than one that can cost $120,000 these days. Finnegan didn’t have a checking account, he relays here, until he was 31 years old. For most of his travels in the far east, he lived hand to mouth, often working in kitchens with working-class people. It’s not clear in his and Bryan’s relationship who is Dean Moriarty and who is Sal Paradise, but by the end of their travels the model falls apart, as Bryan heads back to Missoula, Montana, and Finnegan continues on to apartheid-era South Africa.

Here, the scope of what Finnegan has seen on his travels catches up to him. “There was simply no escaping politics, and I found no common political ground with any of the surfers I met,” he notes. For almost 18 months, his board is a second fiddle as he teaches English and religious studies to teenagers in a township. It is the 1980s, and the general strikes led by high schoolers, among others, are just beginning. On one weekend, he hitchhikes to the coast with an 18-year-old activist who is hand-relaying key information to the city of Durban. Not only does the experience lead Finnegan away from surfing; it draws him toward reporting.

In 1983, when he returns to the United States, Reagan is in office and AIDS is beginning to devastate the city where he has landed, San Francisco, a fact that draws right up close to Finnegan and people he knows. What does surfing mean in the context of risk and power? In one of the book’s last major sections simply about surfing, Finnegan hews close to the power of destruction, and obliteration, describing the monster waves that pummel San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in the winter. The waves are sometimes so big a bus would fit in the barrel. The water is so cold after just 30 minutes that Finnegan’s hands are too numb to unlock his car door. A wild and flamboyant doctor who has been studying the breaks there and their patterns like an urban Thoreau urges him on. Yet, Finnegan finally admits, maybe he has hit his limit.

And still, though, there is more surfing to come. Barbarian Days reveals that an endless passion doesn’t—necessarily—have to lead to an end, as it does for some truly possessed surfers. Finnegan begins to downshift, traveling more to Portugal and other places where the breaks don’t snap necks, and he directs more of the risks he takes as a reporter to covering life in places where power isn’t measured in a wave but in a gun, or in a government often crumbling before one. It’s hard not to marvel at the distance Finnegan has traveled by then—and at the fine alteration he braids into his language when he shifts from the lore of the board to where it took him, to the stakes for citizens in a country where he has come to witness the breakdown in civil order.

Like a surfing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the journey described in Barbarian Days changes Finnegan, fundamentally, even as what he describes in it—not writing, as it was for Stephen Dedalus, but surfing—is a moving front. A place where the wind tacks this way, then that, then suddenly there is the ocean standing up in crests, tall as cathedrals. Here’s a story of what happens when you run toward such beauty, and try not to blink.

Be sure to sign up for Alta Journal’s California Book Club, which will discuss Barbarian Days with Finnegan at its July 15 gathering (at 5:30 p.m.). To join the California Book Club, click here.

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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