Surfing is only a full time occupation for professional athletes that dedicate every day of their entire lives to bettering their craft. Many of us have “side jobs” that allow us to surf as often as we want while still being financially competent. There are bartenders, entertainers, teachers, city workers, and writers like myself that do our work in hopes it brings us closer to the water. Surfing is a sport, but it is also more than that. William Finnegan, 2016 Pulitzer Prize Winner and Author of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life writes about how surfing is “a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life.”
William Finnegan is author of many titles, winner of several awards, writer for the New York Times since 1987, and one hell of a surfer! Being raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan was subjected to the prejudice that surrounded the early surf culture, and has had a firsthand view of how that culture has evolved into modern ways of life. With surfing culture already appealing to the masses, Finnegan was forced to find a way to relate to the coastal lingo and terms used by the more eccentric surfers without alienating the surf enthusiasts. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life is a must read for anyone with interest in the life and culture that surround the surfer’s way of life.
Barbarian Days is William Finnegan’s memoir of an obsession, a complex enchantment. Surfing only looks like a sport. To initiates, it is something else entirely: a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life. Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan started surfing as a child. He has chased waves all over the world, wandering for years through the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa. A bookish boy, and then an excessively adventurous young man, he went on to become a distinguished writer and war reporter. Barbarian Days takes us deep into unfamiliar worlds, some of them right under our noses—off the coasts of New York and San Francisco. It immerses the reader in the edgy camaraderie of close male friendships annealed in challenging waves.
Finnegan shares stories of life in a whitesonly gang in a tough school in Honolulu even while his closest friend was a Hawaiian surfer. He shows us a world turned upside down for kids and adults alike by the social upheavals of the 1960s. He details the intricacies of famous waves and his own apprenticeships to them. Youthful folly—he drops LSD while riding huge Honolua Bay, on Maui—is served up with rueful humor. He and a buddy, their knapsacks crammed with reef charts, bushwhack through Polynesia. They discover, while camping on an uninhabited island in Fiji, one of the world’s greatest waves. As Finnegan’s travels take him ever farther afield, he becomes an improbable anthropologist: unpicking the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissecting the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, navigating the Indonesian black market while nearly succumbing to malaria. Throughout, he surfs, carrying readers with him on rides of harrowing, unprecedented lucidity.
Throughout, he surfs, carrying readers with him on rides of harrowing, unprecented lucidity. Today, Finnegan’s surfing life is undiminished. Frantically juggling work and family, he chases his enchantment through Long Island ice storms and obscure corners of Madagascar.
Barbarian Days is an old-school adventure story, and intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road move, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting little-understood art.