Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan is a memoir about the author’s life as a surfer. Many of the pages are filled with discussions about waves and oceanographic information. It takes readers through California, Hawaii, the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa, northern California, Madeira, and New York – with a couple other stops along the way. It also takes you through the author’s life, from childhood to adulthood, from student to bartender to teacher to journalist–he’s also doing his best to be a writer for much of it. He surfs, he reads, he writes, he works. He is in and out of various relationship with thoughtful women. He meets new friends, they part ways, he meets new ones. He wonders what he is doing out there in the water. He wonders what he is doing as a person.
Surfing certainly does fill a “big psychic hole” for Finnegan, but so does writing, his various relationships, and, eventually, his daughter. He finds better and more fulfilling jobs. He also discovers new surf spots. He visits them continuously, obsessing over their power and beauty. And despite advancements in age, he continues to push his boundaries.
“Things were finally set up like I wanted, and this one slip-up was going to ruin it, and make a lot of people sad,” one surfing partner remarks along the way after a particularly bad run-in with the all powerful sea. Is surfing an addiction? It is dangerous, and, at times, borderline life threatening, but so is the average commute for most city dwellers. As long as you make reasonably good decisions, most of the time things will turn out okay.
Near the end, Finnegan throws in a Jerry Seinfeld quote about surfers, where the comedian says, “What are they doing this for? It’s pure. You’re alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little brief meaningless art form.”
Surfing makes Finnegan happy and fulfilled, even if he is frightened at points. He doesn’t do it to get famous or rich. He does it and that’s all that matters.
For Finnegan, learning about himself as a surfer and about the sea is an endless process. The way he surfs changes as he gets older, but much like a cagey veteran who outsmarts the more virile youth, the author is able to survive some of his most treacherous outings because of his experience in the water. Surf sports are changed by nature and people. It takes years to learn a single break, and it will still surprise you.
The sport/artform requires continual awareness, something Finnegan demonstrates in and out of the water. While in his twenties and surfing in the South Pacific, he remarks, “Then there was the self-disgust, which we each wrestled with differently. Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on–well, it would simply never be okay. In an inescapable way, we sucked, and we knew it, and humility was called for.”
A good amount of Catholic guilt runs through the surfer, but that doesn’t stop him. God does play a part in Finnegan’s thinking from a young age, and when he gets his first opportunity to stop going to church–and instead spend the day surfing–he quickly takes it, remarking, “I immediately stopped going to mass. God was not visibly upset.”
Surfers are often portrayed as in the continual pursuit of the perfect wave, a utopia where each set it filled with beautiful clear blue walls of water stack one after the other. And therefore, they are painted as individuals constantly inpursuit of the proverbial dragon. This is not the case for the author.
For Finnegan, surfing is the pursuit of understanding oneself and understanding the world. He is a lifelong learner as corny as that phrase is. Surfing provides him with an endless point of study that is as physical as it is mental. It is something that is experienced as much alone as it is with others.
Toward the later portion of the memoir, the author remarks about his time as journalist in El Salvador when three other journalists were killed. Afterward he goes and surfs one of the country’s famous waves as “an antidote, however mild, for the horror.” Often people deal with existence through studying it in various forms. Maybe that’s what Finnegan is up to, or maybe he just does it because it’s there. Either way, it’s a thoughtful read created from years of hardwork and filled with as many scars as beautiful memories.
Finnegan has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1987. He has addressed issues such as racism and conflict in Southern Africa, politics in Mexico and South America, as well as poverty among youth in the United States. His work, like his surfing, has taken him around the globe.