Margin Notes: Barbarian Days

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life 

by  William Finnegan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not a surfer, but I am an ocean-dweller. I grew up a few feet from the Atlantic Ocean, I taught kids how to swim in the cold Rockport (MA) water, I know the immense power of waves (I watched as one pulled a home into the water during a hurricane), and this book was a beautiful meditation on the pull, strength, and effects the ocean can have on a person. We follow Finnegan on his journey through the surf and through life.

Finnegan's writing is beautiful--memoir is the art of writing a narrative of your life and getting the heart of the story right. I know a lot about Finnegan's heart from this distinct, beautiful book. The descriptions of the swell of a waves, the smell of big waves crashing and pulling up the bottom of the ocean, the angry foam, the fear and pride and observance of beauty just blew me away and got to the crux of a push/pull relationship with the ocean that I also enjoy.

I highly recommend this book--I listened to the audible version while in the car and found myself immersed in his voice, considering Finnegan's story and how his life has been bent and shaped by his time spent in the ocean. It made me reflective about how to live a life and how I'm living my life.

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Barbarian Days is William Finnegan’s memoir of an obsession, a complex enchantment. Surfing only looks like a sport. To initiates, it is something else entirely: a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life. Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan started surfing as a child. He has chased waves all over the world, wandering for years through the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa. A bookish boy, and then an excessively adventurous young man, he went on to become a distinguished writer and war reporter. Barbarian Days takes us deep into unfamiliar worlds, some of them right under our noses—off the coasts of New York and San Francisco. It immerses the reader in the edgy camaraderie of close male friendships annealed in challenging waves.

Finnegan shares stories of life in a whites only gang in a tough school in Honolulu even while his closest friend was a Hawaiian surfer. He shows us a world turned upside down for kids and adults alike by the social upheavals of the 1960s. He details the intricacies of famous waves and his own apprenticeships to them. Youthful folly—he drops LSD while riding huge Honolua Bay, on Maui—is served up with rueful humor. He and a buddy, their knapsacks crammed with reef charts, bushwhack through Polynesia. They discover, while camping on an uninhabited island in Fiji, one of the world’s greatest waves. As Finnegan’s travels take him ever farther afield, he becomes an improbable anthropologist: unpicking the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissecting the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, navigating the Indonesian black market while nearly succumbing to malaria. Throughout, he surfs, carrying readers with him on rides of harrowing, unprecedented lucidity.

Barbarian Days is an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art. Today, Finnegan’s surfing life is undiminished. Frantically juggling work and family, he chases his enchantment through Long Island ice storms and obscure corners of Madagascar.


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