Escapism has a special lure this summer, if you’re saturated with Islamic State atrocities, the Iran nuclear deal and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. As relief from such weighty matters, I can recommend a magnificently escapist book about surfing called “Barbarian Days.”
Subtitled “A Surfing Life,” the book is a memoir by New Yorker writer William Finnegan about his pursuit of big, beautiful waves since he was 10. Finnegan is a fine reporter and writer, as New Yorker readers have long known, but he is also a serious surfer who for a half-century has challenged himself to ride the mightiest waves he can.
Finnegan describes waves as living things, shaped by winds, currents, sand bars, reefs, storms and swells. Reading the ocean when astride his board, he’s at once a meteorologist, hydraulic engineer, cartographer and artist.
Here’s how he describes the palette of colors in the breaking waves at Hawaii’s Makaha Point: some “cobalt at the top,” others “a warmer shade of navy blue in the shadowed part of the maw,” a distant set of “long, long roping gray walls.”
Finnegan doesn’t brag about his exploits; he tells you how afraid he was sometimes and about the swells that he decided were too big to ride. He recounts a few times he walked away from unridden surf with a sense of shame. But he’s deliberately underselling himself: The book includes pictures of him riding monster waves three times his height in Portugal and the South Seas.
“Being out in big surf is dreamlike,” he writes. “Terror and ecstasy ebb and flow around the edges of things, each threatening to overwhelm the dreamer. An unearthly beauty saturates an enormous arena of moving water, latent violence, too-real explosions, and sky. . . . I always feel a ferocious ambivalence: I want to be nowhere else; I want to be anywhere else.”
What makes this a perfect summer book is the way it draws us into the author’s private passion and invites us to indulge our own eccentricities and obsessions. Realizing that Finnegan is a world-class surfer is like discovering that columnist Tom Friedman is a scratch golfer or that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz plays defensive back in a senior soccer league or that billionaire Warren Buffett is a killer bridge player. Within even the most extraordinary lives, there are other lives.
“Barbarian Days” is also a reminder of just how crazy people were in the 1960s and ’70s, when the ordered world was coming apart and New Age guru Ken Kesey’s slogan “Further” summed up a rebellious young person’s aspirations. For Finnegan, the passion was chasing waves, from a boyhood in Los Angeles to an adolescence in Hawaii and then to a global Wanderjahr that took him in his 20s to Fiji, Australia, South Africa and Portugal, and then back to the United States.
Having done my share of crazy things back then (riding a freight train with hobos out West sticks in my mind), I relished Finnegan’s description of his efforts to shed his privileged self — only to find that it was impossible to escape. “Being rich white Americans in dirt poor places . . . well, it would simply never be OK. In an inescapable way, we sucked, and we knew it, and humility was called for.” He describes some of his early journalism as a kind of reparation.
Some of the most gripping passages in the book, expanding on an unforgettable piece in the New Yorker two decades ago, describe riding the huge, frigid waves of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. “From the water’s edge, looking out across a stepladder of six or seven walls of cold, growling, onrushing whitewater, the idea of paddling out actually carried with it a whiff of lunacy. The project looked impossible, like trying to swim up a waterfall.”
At times like these, Finnegan seems in the spell of a personal compulsion. Journalism may be his vocation, but surfing is deeper. It affords Finnegan the chance to get lost in something beautiful and powerful. Finnegan likens this experience in several passages to sex and religion, but his point is that, for its devotees, surfing is transcendence.
A final value of this escapist book is that it celebrates the inner barbarian that’s in most of us. This pursuit of adventure is a special American virtue, a quality that for many foreigners defines what’s lovable about our otherwise vain, violent and often arrogant culture. We are sometimes at our best (or certainly, our most American) when we are restless, risk-taking, wave-riding obsessives.
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