Book Review: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

In my search for new nonfiction books to read, I perused recent awards lists and came across this title. It surprised me that a book on surfing should have won a Pulitzer Prize, but as I read brief descriptions of the book I realized that there must be much more to it. I’m not really interested in surfing, either to participate in or to watch, but Finnegan is about my age, grew up in the same generation, experimented with drugs, including LSD, and traveled the world on the bum. All of this intrigued me so I decided to give the book a try.

It quickly drew me in. Finnegan is an accomplished writer. What he does in this book is tell the story of his life in relation to surfing, and use his fascination with surfing as a focal point. The settings range from his early years in California, his middle and high school years in Hawaii, an extended journey roaming the South Pacific and Australia looking for waves, a school teaching era in South Africa, and other years surfing and living in the San Francisco Bay area, the island of Madeira in Portugal, and recent surfing on the coasts of Long Island and New Jersey.

Surfing is obviously much more than a sport to Finnegan; it takes on a metaphysical aspect – something that directs and transforms his life, gives him comfort and serenity, and serves as a stabilizer and I might even say a spiritual practice. The respect that he accords surfing and the guidance he derives from it as well as a vision of its metaphorical value sort of rubbed off on me; I found myself thinking of my efforts, failures, and renewed efforts, while I was reading the book at least, in terms of riding waves: you paddle out, try, succeed or fail, paddle out again, and try again and again and again. Some rides are sweet and some rides are dangerous, but it’s just what you do. You live for the sweet rides. I thought of my life as a writer of stories and articles. The rejections are when you fall off the board, when the wave gets the better of you, but you pick yourself up and keep going because of that amazing feeling when you’re on a good ride and you lose, at least temporarily, the otherwise ever-present sense of your own mortality.

And Finnegan’s long odyssey around the world looking for waves – well, I could so empathize with that. I did something similar. When I was young I took off on the road not really knowing where I was going. What I was looking for was my voice as a writer. I knew I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t know what to say. I carried notebooks with me but for a long time they remained empty. It was only when I got far, far afield that the words began to spurt out: first on a beach in Goa, India, and then on a hillside at the edge of Katmandu, and then while walking along without map or guide on small paths in the Himalayas, and in other places. It took me awhile to realize that I had accomplished my goal: I had found my voice, and now all I had to do was use it.

So yes, this book goes far beyond being a memoir on surfing. It is a deeply nuanced book on countercultural changes in the early seventies, on the loneliness and uncertainty of travel, of racial inequalities in South Africa under Apartheid, and about coming to grips with something that is important to you spiritually and that drives the decisions you make in life.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book. It turned out to be much more than I thought it would be. I found a kinship with Finnegan in so many ways. And trust me: you can get off on this book even if surfing means nothing to you one way or the other. Just hop on board and enjoy the ride.

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