An Antidote for Horror: On William Finnegan’s ‘Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life’


It took William Finnegan seven years to write the 1992 New Yorker profile of a San Francisco surfer that would later be called by one surf publication “possibly the greatest surf story ever.”

Why so long?

“More urgent topics — apartheid, war, calamities of different kinds — kept claiming my attention,” Finnegan explains in his new memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. “These were serious matters, consuming as work, self-justifying as projects. Surfing was the opposite.”

And yet he’s written Barbarian Days. The nearly 450-page tome, hefty as a handful of wet sand, chronicles Finnegan’s lifelong — one could say “consuming” — passion for the tumultuous art of wave riding.

It’s true that in the two decades between his article and his book, Finnegan, a New Yorker staff writer, has again been absorbed in the serious work of a global correspondent. He’s the author of several books of reportage, including Cold New World, a book that reveals a growing American underclass. But Barbarian Days, like the article before it, shows that surfing, stereotypically the domain of slackers and stoners, can be taken seriously. Barbarian Days, in the tradition of the great adventure memoir, is not only an account of events, of waves caught and conquered — it’s a reflection on fear, mortality, and the seductive pleasures that can be found at their very edge.

So how does it compare to 1992’s acclaimed “Playing Doc’s Games?” It surfs circles around it.

“Doc’s Games,” which ran in two segments, is, in parts, a brief history of surfing; a thorough examination of San Francisco’s underground surf scene in the 1980s; and a profile of Mark Renneker, a wild, wave-riding San Francisco physician whose enthusiasm for tackling treacherous swells approximates a death wish. Finnegan, who inserts himself into the piece as a faltering surf junkie, contrasts Renneker’s gung-ho, no-fear attitude with his own growing reservations toward the sport.

“I felt direly confused about surfing…and was trying to sort it out,” Finnegan writes in the article. He later adds, “I was trying to figure out how to live with the disabling enchantment of surfing.”

The piece, while finely written, feels at times haphazardly organized. Finnegan’s many topics — from his relationship with surfing to Renneker’s relationships with other surfers — sometimes blur in a soupy, white water deluge of characters, personal musings, and ambling narrative arc. The two parts in the series are clumsily connected (part two begins as if it’s a completely new story), jolting the reader in transition.

Nonetheless, “Doc’s Games” is notable for, among other things, its brutal surf descriptions that challenge the layman’s impression of a blissful, Zen-like sport. Finnegan makes no qualms about his fears in confronting San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, a famously violent surf spot that Renneker takes on with glee.

Barbarian Days addresses many of these same subjects — life-threatening waves, surf culture, his changing feelings about the sport, his friendships — but, as a book-length memoir, it is a more ideal vessel for Finnegan’s exploration of his own surf obsession. The author crafts a first-person narrative unrestricted by magazine space and journalistic convention. His personal account of a lifetime chasing waves, supplemented by an insider’s knowledge of surf history and culture, is enough to carry the reader’s interest through 10 lengthy chapters.

Each chronological chapter features a place and Finnegan’s account of living and surfing there. We begin with the author’s childhood in California and Hawaii, where he bonds with local boys over surfing despite his status as a haole (white) outsider. Then Finnegan, overcome by wanderlust, takes us on a Beat-like ramble through the world (Samoa, Indonesia, Australia, Fiji, and beyond) in search of wisdom and untrammeled surf spots. We land in his present middle age, a little older, a little wiser, but just as tethered to travel and the ocean. Along the way he drops out of college, experiments with drugs, goes back to college, avoids the Vietnam war, earns an MFA, becomes a teacher at an apartheid-era South African school, and reads and ponders tremendously — all while anticipating (and sometimes narrowly escaping) the next big wave.

The San Francisco chapter, though almost directly lifted from “Doc’s Games,” comes bearing the experiences of seven surf-filled chapters — context (only summarized in the article) that gives substantial weight to Finnegan’s new ambivalence toward the sport that drove so much of his life. At this point he’s turned 30, is getting settled into a career in journalism, and is weary of the surf bum life.

“[Surfing] contributed little to how I saw myself,” he writes in Barbarian Days. “I was reluctant to think of it as part of my real life as an adult, which I was now busy trying to kick-start. Journalism was ferrying me into worlds that interested me far more than chasing waves.”

It’s no spoiler that Finnegan didn’t hang up his board once his journalism career took off. The final chapters, which weave surf anecdotes with reflections on an uneasy domesticity — family, a home, steady work — spotlight just how indispensable surfing is to the itinerant author. During a dicey reporting trip to El Salvador, where several reporters died covering an election day during a civil war, Finnegan retreats to a wave.

“After I wrote and filed my story, I went surfing,” he writes. “Surfing was an antidote, however mild, for the horror.”

Finnegan, drawing upon his lifelong journals, describes surf conditions with almost photographic detail: “It was midday, and the straight-overhead sun rendered the water invisible. It was as if we were suspended above the reef, floating on a cushion of nothing, unable to judge the depth unless we happened to kick a coral head. Approaching waves were like optical illusions.” His unadorned, but elegant, prose makes for entertaining reading. That said, his numerous tales of fearsome and deadly waves begin to feel, at a certain point, interchangeable.

But the waves are only part of this lyrical, intellectual memoir. The author touches on love, on responsibility, on politics, individuality and morality, as well as on the lesser-known aspects of surfing: the toll it takes on the body, the weird lingo, the whacky community. Finnegan’s world is as dazzling and deep as any ocean. It’s a pleasure to paddle into and makes for a hell of a ride.