John Lancaster is a former Washington Post reporter and a longtime surfer.
By William Finnegan
Penguin Press. 447 pp. $27.95
In March of last year, the New Yorker writer William Finnegan nearly drowned while surfing off the west coast of Oahu. A giant wave buried him under an avalanche of whitewater, holding him down for so long that he ran out of oxygen. Finnegan finally surfaced, gulping air and thinking of his young daughter back home in New York. He berated himself for his recklessness and vowed then and there that he would never again take such a foolish risk.
Finnegan recounts this harrowing near-death experience — “my little fiasco” — near the end of “Barbarian Days,” his terrific new memoir, which chronicles his half-century obsession with the sport that has shaped his life and, on occasion, nearly ended it. But just as surfing has always been more than a form of recreation (some call it a religion, others simply a “path”), so “Barbarian Days” transcends its putative subject. Elegantly written and structured, it’s a riveting adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, and a restless, searching meditation on love, friendship and family. Finnegan’s waterlogged epiphany off Oahu — which seems a little late in coming to this obviously besotted dad — is typical of the spirit of the book, its interleaving of life and waves.
Which is appropriate, because in Finnegan’s case the two are hard to separate. One of four children from a liberal Catholic household, he fell for the sport, hard, while growing up in California and Hawaii in the 1960s and has never managed to shake the addiction. As a young man, he embraced the life of an itinerant surfer, wandering the far Pacific with little more than his surfboard and a clutch of old nautical charts to guide his quest. Eventually he fetched up in apartheid-era South Africa, where he got a job teaching in a “colored” high school. That experience led to a book, but even as his writing career took off, he continued to feed his habit with extended surfing trips — to Fiji and the Portuguese island of Madeira, among other places — that make one marvel at the forbearance of his New Yorker editors, to say nothing of his long-suffering wife.
A writer of rare subtlety and observational gifts, Finnegan explores every aspect of the sport — its mechanics and intoxicating thrills, its culture and arcane tribal codes — in a way that should resonate with surfers and non-surfers alike. His descriptions of some of the world’s most powerful and unforgiving waves are hauntingly beautiful. “Approaching waves were like optical illusions,” he writes of a spectacular, unmapped break off Tavarua, a tiny, uninhabited island in Fiji. “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.”
At the time, 1978, Finnegan was traveling with Bryan Di Salvatore, a charming, big-hearted scholar-surfer who came to the South Pacific by way of Yale and an Idaho ranch. Their friendship was close but complex, and the two squabbled like siblings, often over Finnegan’s penchant for risk-taking. After accompanying Finnegan to Australia and Bali, Di Salvatore took his leave, but only after seeing his friend through a severe bout of malaria that landed him in a Bangkok hospital (how they paid the bill is a story in itself).
Di Salvatore is one of several indelible characters, including Mark Renneker, a ponytailed physician who educated Finnegan on the mysteries of the treacherous and ever-shifting waves off San Francisco, where the writer lived after returning from South Africa. Finnegan was fascinated by Renneker — not only because of his wave knowledge and technical skill, but also because his brashness and garrulity cut against surfing’s “social contract,” which rewards understatement and cool. When Finnegan asked to profile him for the New Yorker, Renneker agreed but hated the published result.
In sharing this small but painful detail, Finnegan displays an honesty that is evident throughout the book, parts of which have a searing, unvarnished intensity that reminded me of “Stop Time,” the classic coming-of-age memoir by Frank Conroy — or in one case, “Lord of the Flies.” That would be the scene in which Finnegan, struggling to find his way in a tough, ethnically mixed middle school in Honolulu, joins in the beating of a hapless, unusually tall classmate, cruelly nicknamed Lurch, in some perverse act of score-settling. It took him far too long, he writes, before he recognized the nature of this “disgusting crime.”
If “Barbarian Days” is partly about growing up, it’s also about growing old. Now in his early 60s, Finnegan sometimes struggles with takeoffs — “I missed waves I should have caught, lumbered to my feet when I should have sprung” — and his arms, which once seemed impervious to fatigue, now go limp after a few hours of hard paddling, no matter how many laps he puts in at the pool.
But he soldiers on, sometimes in icy winter swells off Long Island and New Jersey, near his home in New York, sometimes in the same tropical waves he discovered in his youth. Of course, they’ve changed, too. When Finnegan and Di Salvatore first surfed the reef break at Tavarua, they did so by themselves, at a time when the number of surfers who even knew about it could be counted on two hands. But the island where they camped for weeks in the late ’70s — sleeping, in Finnegan’s case, on an old fish-drying rack — eventually was taken over by a private resort, which restricted access to its breaks to paying guests.
Though dismayed by this privatization of surf, Finnegan went back to Tavarua anyway, multiple times. He couldn’t help himself — the waves there were too good. He “didn’t want this to end.” And neither, by the end of this fine book, do we.