I am not a surfer. I have never spent a day on big, rough waves in Hawaii or on small but perfect waves in Tonga. I am, however, a rubbernecker. If there’s a stretch of beach where I can watch surfers bob up and down in wetsuits waiting for a break, I’m there.
William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE, is the literary equivalent of sitting on the beach on a day with good breaks. It follows Finnegan from his first days surfing when his family moved to Hawaii in 1966 and he got serious about the sport. Broken up into chapters that span years spent in different locales, Finnegan shares forty years of his life in surfing. His beautiful tales of a life spent in the search for surf are sure to incite wanderlust in anyone who has the distinct joy of reading BARBARIAN DAYS—surfer or not.
Some of the most beautiful sections in the book take place during the 1970s. Armed with a surfboard, a good sense for finding like-minded souls, and little else, he takes off on a long adventure to some of the most beautiful places in the world. The most beautiful places, it turns out, also tend to be host to some of the best waves. And it is here, in the almost scientific recounting of all the waves he’s surfed, that Finnegan does his best descriptive work. Before reading this book I’d thought of waves as, well, water. It turns out they can be “mushy,” “dribbly,” “flawless as a nautilus shell,” or like “the iris of a camera lens opening.”
Surf is the muse and in the narrative Finnegan never veers from his focus. Though his life, his personal relationships, and his emotions are part of the story, they are all tightly lashed to the surfing he was doing at the time—which waves, which season, which locale. His tight focus reveals a secondary subject of the book: obsession. Finnegan forsakes most everything but surfing for many years of his life, traveling around the world in his own version of THE ENDLESS SUMMER. This particular brand of fixation could fatigue the reader, but with Finnegan, it is exactly that obsession—with the detail of each wave, each day, each surf spot—that make the whole book so finely wrought.