Book Review: ‘Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life’

September 2, 2015 Updated: September 13, 2015

Surfing is a mere sport, some might say—one that has performance value comparable to skateboarding and other X Games events. Others can appreciate surfing as an intricate art, similar to the physical beauty of the ballet. Yet in order to understand surfing as a lifestyle, one needs a detailed and honest guide like William Finnegan’s memoir “Barbarian Days.

Finnegan’s books have hitherto focused on political unrest—protests in Mexico, wars in Sudan, apartheid in South Africa. As he well knows, it would be folly to “dumb down” any of these life-altering experiences for an audience of outsiders. The best way for an audience to understand something is for them to get as close to experiencing it as possible.

While reading ‘Barbarian Days,’ it is possible to feel like a close confidant to a surf-crazed wanderer.

This is Finnegan’s mission in “Barbarian Days”: to give readers an intimate understanding of a surfer’s life and all of the physical and emotional trials that accompany it.

Surfing, in the author’s mind, begins with the beauty of the sea—its vastness, its many shades of blue and bluish green, and its ability to produce constant, powerful waves. Next comes a feeling of isolation; no matter how many companions are sharing the ocean with the surfer, the surfer feels that he is alone with the ocean. In fact, the sea acts as the surfer’s closest friend and biggest enemy who sometimes tries to drown him.

“The wind was light, the channel looked safe. The waves were big and hard-breaking but makeable, even precise.” Finnegan writes this description of the Hawaiian sea from the perspective of his middle-school self, and it is these remarkably vivid details from every stage of Finnegan’s life that pull readers in to the complex world of the surfer.

(Penguin Press)
(Penguin Press)

He describes the challenge of predicting which wave will give him the best ride, and once that promising wave is spotted, it must be mounted like a wild horse. The surfer must ask himself: “How do I ride this wave so that I look cool from the shoreline without wiping out?” These questions must be answered in a matter of seconds because there’s no telling what an untamed wave is likely to do. But once a wave has been successfully mastered, Finnegan expresses a sense of power over this intense force of nature.

These raw emotions are what keep Finnegan, and surfers like him, drawn to the waves. The author’s past experiments with marijuana and LSD do not prove to be anywhere near as addictive as the pull of the ocean and the drive to conquer a perfect wave. But not every person who surfs in his or her youth feels that unrelenting draw back to the sea.

In “Barbarian Days,” it becomes clear that a surfer’s life is centered on a complicated form of balance. Of course, there is the physical challenge of balancing on the surfboard itself, but there is a much deeper balance that must be achieved in order to retain a sense of sanity. This is a task that many of us face: how to balance work life and responsibilities with recreation and passion.

For a surfer, this means tracking the seasons for the best waves. It means studying the times of day when the waves swell just right. In Finnegan’s case, it means waking up at the first light of dawn to squeeze an hour or so of surfing in before work. Many of his comrades who traveled the world with him lost that sense of balance. For them, surfing has become only a vacation activity. But for Finnegan, the vast power of the ocean and the rush of his heartbeat are too strong to keep him away.

Raw emotions are what keep Finnegan, and surfers like him, drawn to the waves.

“Barbarian Days” begins in the widely accepted surfing haven of Honolulu and ends on the unexpected city shoreline of New York City. In between, Finnegan has grown from an awkward preteen boy with a surfing obsession and transformed into an established man with a surfing passion.

Yet it is these early years in Hawaii that feel the most compelling—perhaps because Finnegan’s writing is so honest that it draws the reader back to his or her own youthful foolishness. He recalls trying to fit in, discovering girls and the weirdness of puberty, and dropping out of school to go chase a dream (which, in Finnegan’s case, took the form of a perfect wave).

While reading “Barbarian Days,” it is possible to feel like a close confidant to a surf-crazed wanderer as you stay up late and share a drink while listening to him tell you about his stories, his secrets, and his desires. But surfing and the author is not all that the reader learns about. Some of the most interesting parts of the book describe the places and cultures, both ancient and modern, that act as the backdrop for many of Finnegan’s adventures.

For example, in the passage that describes the significance of surfing to the ancient Hawaiians, he writes, “Their winter harvest festival lasted three months—during which the surf frequently pumped and work was officially forbidden.” Of course, with the arrival of the missionaries, these cultural leisure activities were replaced in favor of work and education and prayer.

There is something vaguely “Siddhartha” about “Barbarian Days.” It must be the spiritual journey that William Finnegan undertakes to come to a deeper understanding of the world and his place in it. Although Finnegan doesn’t reach nirvana, he does reach a poignant conclusion about surfing: that while he was out chasing waves, the waves acted as a divine catalyst, guiding him from one stage of his life to the next. Perhaps only a true surfer would fully understand, but “Barbarian Days” makes it a little clearer for the rest of us.

Chelsea Scarnegie, with a degree in writing, lives and writes in the Chicago area.