My god. How does one review this book? I hate this book. I hate William Finnegan. I also love the book and love William Finnegan. The problem is that it is hard to be enthusiastic about someone who is so thoroughly superior to you in every way. When I read something, I want to feel a little like the author. I want to believe that, at a pinch, I could achieve a little of what the author has achieved if life had taken me down a similar path. Nup. With this book, every page makes me feel incapable, inadequate and defeated. I couldn’t achieve a quarter of what Finnegan has achieved in his life… even with a bit of luck on my side. It’s not William’s fault. It’s not the book’s fault. It’s just me. I’m so freaking jealous!
William surfs much better than me. William has surfed all of the waves that I would love to surf but would never be talented or courageous enough take on. William is better looking than me. He has more interesting friends that I do. He reads better books than I do. He writes much better than me. William is more modest I am. William was even better at school playground fighting than I was! All in all, William is a prick.
Plenty of critics have said that Finnegan’s work rises above anything that has been produced by surf-focused writers and journalists previously. I won’t disagree with them. I enjoyed Tim Winton’s fictional take on the Australian suburban surfing teenager’s life. I appreciated Matt Warshaw and Drew Kampion’s studious and analytical take on surf culture. I just loved Leonard Leuras’ lovingly crafted and passionate description of where surfing came from and why it generates so much hatred and love. Even so, Finnegan’s work is, in my view, the best of the bunch. In Barbarian Days, William Finnegan describes his life as a surfer and, in so doing, takes readers into the mysterious corners of the addicted surfer’s mind and provides understanding as to why they do what they do, make the decisions they make, go where they go and live as they live.
Unlike some of his fellow surfers who he describes in the book, Finnegan has not lived a life solely devoted to surfing at the expense of all other aspects of his life. Finnegan has pursued a writing and journalism career, travelled, studied, had lots of friends (both surf and not non-surf related), has followed many cultural interests, been politically and socially active and raised a family. Even so, surfing has always been there. As such, Finnegan’s book is a unique biography in that it sheds light on an addictive sport and lifestyle from the perspective of one who has done much more than simply surf. Unlike other books dedicated to surfing this one is pitched to its readers coming from someone who was indeed a lifelong addict but a lifelong addict who happens to be a pretty regular, though ridiculously talented, guy. As a result this book is a rewarding read for both the surfing nutter like me and the “legions of the unjazzed” as Kampion has described non-surfers.
In Barbarian Days, we follow young William from California to Hawaii then back to California where, as the son of a television producer, he was able to spend much of his early life in places where a lifelong love of the ocean was likely to flourish. After school, Finnegan had a brief university false start then found himself drawn to the famed western Maui surfing spot of Honolua Bay. Here he spent some time living with his high school sweetheart, Caryn. After his return to west coast USA and working for a period on the railways, young Finnegan made plans with a young guy who he had befriended in Maui (Bryan Di Salvatore), to travel the South Pacific seeking out undiscovered waves.
William and Bryan first explored Guam, Tonga and Fiji before settling in Gold Coast Australia for a period. From the Gold Coast the travellers then moved on to the desert beaches of South Australia. They then trekked north through the middle of the continent in a clapped-out ’64 Ford station wagon that should never have made the journey. Rather than fret about the constantly overheating temperature gauge on the dash the men simply plastered a bit of gaffer tape with the message “she’ll be right” scrawled on it over the top of the offending gauge. The optimistic travellers managed to make Darwin then travelled on to Bali, then West Java (Granjagan), then Nias (near Sumatra). After a brief stint in Singapore and Thailand where William was joined by his girlfriend Sharon and abandoned by his travelling buddy Bryan, he moved on to South Africa. As a high school teacher at a “coloured” school called Grassy Flats High, William experienced apartheid South Africa in its final days.
On returning to the United States, Finnegan resumed his University studies before commencing his career as a journalist and writer. His writing assignments took him to trouble spots on all corners of the planet over the succeeding years. Barbarian Days logs Finnegan’s time living in both San Francisco and New York while working for various news and media organizations (including The New Yorker) and describes his love for both the surfing spots he discovers near these great cities and the surfing destinations he explores as a working adult (South America, Mexico, Fiji, Hawaii and Madeira in particular) in between writing assignments and getting on with life.
The thing I like most about this book is that Finnegan is a great word craftsman. Finnegan arranges his words and ideas in ways that make me giggle, grimace, hold my breath, throw things angrily or let out a big “aww”, line after line. When he describes a bully who was harassing him as one “who had been shaving since birth” and laments the incompetence of his teacher who “didn’t hear all those unauthorized resonating clunks” as the bully continually belted him on the head with a bit of four-by-two I nearly wet myself laughing.
Thousands of surf writers have tried to describe why surfing is such a great sport. Most fail. Finnegan’s descriptions of the emotions generated by surfing (excitement, terror, bliss etc.), his descriptions of the sensations of surfing (tactile, visual, auditory, balance, speed etc.) and his descriptions of the kind of life that a commitment to surfing generates probably come closer to “getting it right” than anyone else has ever done before. Additionally, Finnegan paints a picture of how his surfing life, in addition to the other aspects of his personal world (his spirituality, his commitment to social justice, his cultural interests, his love for his writing career, his values) all feed into the relationships he has had with his family and his wonderful group of friends. William Finnegan would not have had the surfing life that he has had without Roddy, Glenn, Ford, Domenic, Becket, Caryn, Bryan, Sharon, Mandy, Mark, Peewee, Peter, John and Caroline and his adventures with this universally intelligent, thoughtful and interesting group of people are a big part of what makes the book great.
At one point Finnegan praises the writing style preferences of his buddy Bryan Di Salvatore because “he loved pure captured dialect cracked humour, vivid physicality and a knockout metaphor and he disliked nothing more than a stock expression”. Di Salvatore could always be uplifted by “the incredible foot-stomping joy of a well-turned phrase.” Ironically enough, time and time again throughout the text, Finnegan writes precisely the kind of prose that would have left his mate leaping with delight.
While the book has many high points it’s hard to go past Finnegan’s description of his time living in San Francisco where he discovered not only extraordinary, serious-surfers-only waves, but a collection of unforgettable big wave surfers as the best bit. Finnegan’s contrasting of the loud, brash, enthusiastic, fanatical, never out of the water, local big wave ring-leader “Doc” with the shy, quiet, under-stated yet equally eloquent, big wave charging tradesman, “Peewee” is fascinating. While the local hippy doctor, Mark “Doc” Renneker, may have had the “complete bionic swagger”, a total lack of fear in huge waves and a reputation as the local leader in the line-up it was the quiet, intense, carpenter, Bill “Peewee” Bergerson who, while much more discriminating in the kinds of waves that he would take on, in the mind of Finnegan was not only the greatest surfer in the San Francisco region but also the one who would describe the allure of riding waves most articulately.
Bergerson shared with Finnegan his thoughts on surfing over coffee, one morning. “It’s such a great sport, it corrupts people. It’s like drug addiction. You just don’t want to do anything else.” Bergerson was aware of the cost that comes with the bliss… the down-side of going beyond the “stoke” apex. Finnegan then goes on to explain that it became his life’s goal to “figure out how to live with this disabling enchantment of surfing.” It’s hard to imagine any eloquent surf writer ever getting closer to achieving a crystal clear explanation of what surfing means to a surfer than Bergerson and Finnegan come up with in these simple statements.
I also enjoyed Finnegan’s vivid descriptions of some of his surfing experiences. It wasn’t always about thunderous, macho, life-threatening, super-charged events either. Some of his descriptions are just plain visually orgasmic.
“The wind quit and the water, already extremely clear became more so. It was midday and the straight over-head sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended above the reef. Floating on a cushion of nothing, unable even to judge the depth unless we happened to kick a coral head. Approaching waves were like optical illusions. You could look straight through them at the sky and sea and sea bottom behind them. And when I caught one and stood up it disappeared. I was flying down the line but all I could see was brilliant reef streaming under my feet. It was like surfing on air. The wave was so small and clear that I couldn’t distinguish the wave face from the flats behind the wave. It was all just clear water. I had to surf by feel. This was truly dreamlike.”
So what’s not so good about Barbarian Days? Well, not an awful lot other than the unkind attack it makes upon my fragile ego. A couple of minor points bare mentioning, though.
One gets the impression that Finnegan comes to a pretty quick cultural or social impression of a place well before all of the evidence is in and all the research has been done… and as a result, just gets it so wrong! His impressions of the surf culture within Australia when he lobs there in the late seventies is a case in point. He describes a “wholesome hoopla” where the sport is “fully mainstreamed” with “clubs and contests and school teams.” If he had had a bit more time to talk to the emerging pro surfers (Wayne Bartholomew, Ian Cairns, Pete Townend, Michael Peterson) he met around Kirra who were attempting to present a polished and managerial image he would have discovered a bunch of hard-bitten, discriminated-against, working class kids who were attempting to drag their sport out of a publicly reviled cess-pit where surfers were considered by the “authorities” to be at best dole-bludgers and at worst drug-addled delinquents and criminals. If Finnegan had been a bit more aware of what was going on in his own back yard he would have seen that surfing was emerging from a dark past into a cleaner, more professional world in Southern California, Hawaii and Australia almost simultaneously. The “hoopla” was not an exclusively Australian thing.
I actually loved Finnegan’s description of the late seventies Tracks Magazine as being culturally “screamingly lame.” While it would be hard to disagree with Finnegan’s assessment I suspect that his harsh views might have been a little less vitriolic if he was more aware of the historical context. Late seventies Tracks editors were attempting to manage a transitional stage for the newspaper where a historically aggressively anti-establishment and counter-cultural mag was being forced to adapt to an increasingly commercial, professional and misogynistic surfing world. Track’s efforts to embrace the new regime while doggedly clinging to a veneer of transgressiveness and anti-authority rarely hit the spot culturally. I am not surprised that Tracks readers, some who clung to the old world of surfing, others who loved the new commercial glossy world, a third group who were ambivalent and a fourth group who wanted to have their cake and eat it too must have hated the essays that Finnegan and Di Salvatore wrote for Tracks that lampooned the world of Australian surfing. No wonder the boys felt a need to skip town.
My other gripe is completely unfair. Unreasonable. Ridiculous. I just want to know how it is that William Finnegan got to surf all the great Hawaiian spots (Oahu north shore and Maui), most of California (too many great places to name), Tavarua (Fiji… before the word actually got out), Kirra (when it was still pumping), Cactus, Uluwatu, Granjagan, Nias, Jeffrey’s Bay… in fact every known and unknown great surfing break on this planet or any other… along with thousands of other wonderful places both heard of and unheard of… before his twenty-first birthday. I simply don’t believe it. Nobody did that. I can just see young William tramping from break to break with Plato and Joyce and a notebook under one arm and his big-wave gun under the other. What a dick! And then he tells us late in the book that as mature surfers he and his mate Peter pretty much discovered Madeira (even before the Portuguese pros got there). He’s bloody lying! I wonder if Bryan Di Salvatore even exists at all.
The final word? Read it. There is simply nothing better.
Note: The image marked with a * is not actually Bill surfing at Cloundbreak. But it should be.
Barbarian Days – A Surfing Life
By William Finnegan
Winner Pulitzer Prize for Biography 2016
Published by Penguin Books, 2015
Socrates paid $24.99 in his local book shop